Saturday 31 December 2022

Booting up

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

The blank page has always been the writer's foe.  It lies there, supine, flaunting its passivity so shamelessly that it gradually assumes the character of a challenge.  Today, however, the author has an alternative which not only avoids these traditional pitfalls, but even counters them with corresponding benefits: the word processor.

The blank page is replaced by a blank screen, but one which is vivified by the business of loading up the word processing software.  The preliminary acts alone bespeak a new, more dynamic approach.  First you place the floppy disc in the disc drive; it is like a key inserted into a lock: it promises to release you from the writer's prison of wordlessness.  Then you power up - a gloriously apt phrase for that heady sense of artistic potentiation, of the incipient forging of words into worlds.

Upon switching on the machine, it already starts reacting, coming to meet you halfway - no mere tool, but an accomplice.  It purrs like a sleek and thoroughbred animal, and the screen flickers into action, awaking from its silent silicon dreams.  Words appear - the machine is giving you words before it attempts to take them, encouraging you by its example.  Sometimes the initial messages greet with an easy familiarity, sometimes they are reassuringly business-like.  Either way, they spring into life with an ease which begins to imply that all succeeding words will follow as fluently and as effortlessly.  The blank screen becomes now a taut-stretched canvas, straining for your marks, the tiny blinking cursor in the top left-hand corner an eager child signalling for you to join the game.

Compare all this to the typewriter - which is revealed now as a kind of decerebrated word processor, inert and unable to respond, a purely mechanical assemblage of levers.  The pen and pencil are seen for the wicked, pointed weapons that they are; no wonder that the blank page is so recalcitrant - paper is not used but abused: you attack it, applying an unremitting pressure with your mad surgeon's word scalpel.

By contrast the computer's keyboard is like that of a piano - or, better, like that of some infinitely delicate and subtle instrument such as a clavichord.  As the fingers wander gracefully over its keys, they seem to be tapping out an intricate prelude of Bach.  More than that, as you type, the gentle and flowing movements gain a rhythm of their own; the tactile sensation passes from mere sensuousness to sensuality, until the act of writing is transmuted into a constant loving caress.

Switching on a computer is sometimes called booting up, a reference to the process of bootstrapping, or pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.  The phrase is a neat metaphor for how the machine manages to load a program before it has loaded a program which tells it how to load a program.  This marvellous act of self-creation is a gift such machines offer their users every time they are turned on.  Booting up stands as a constant reminder to the writer who is about to construct without scaffolding some bridge of words across a chasm of non-existence that such miracles are indeed possible.


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