Ghost in the Machine

My Intellectual Prosthetic

I discovered the ghost in my computer back in 1987 when I realized I used my PC like an intellectual prosthetic. Of course every computer can be described as an intellectual prosthetic.For example, the hard-drive functions as a prosthetic memory. And Google, well, let's not go there.

The experience I’m thinking about was stranger and more mysterious. And it was all about writing.

About the time the first PC virus spread over the Internet in the early ‘80s, the buzz in the software world was “integration,” employing a common set of commands for word processors, spreadsheets, and databases. I jumped into the market purchasing a program called Framework. An integrated application, Framework was designed for business but was perfect for writing. Better than perfect. Framework took integrated software a step beyond, throttling the stubborn computer and turning it into more than the sum of its parts. That created unexpected synergies, and let the writing genie out of the bottle.

All alone, Framework seemed like any other word processor. The computer screen was the palette. You typed, corrected, revised. But that was just the surface. The familiar screen was actually a “nest” and not a stand-alone document. Each screen was capable of holding another screen, many other screens in fact. By copying and pasting (or just writing), I could take a passel of scattered notes and plunk each one into its own “nest,” nest by nest. More important, Framework required each nest to be named.

Let’s pause here, because putting a name on a note is like putting a title on a story. It literally requires a higher order of thinking, or at least a shift in the intellectual gears. Put in Hollywood terms, what the notes required was akin to a “high concept.” The way I saw it, the effort was like finding the forest for the trees. Not easy.

So, I cheated. I simply wrote a brief description of a nest’s contents, a short sentence. When the nesting was done, the descriptions I had written for each one represented a new topic. With a simple command, those topics became an outline that could be manipulated. And to my surprise, the outline revealed the story’s “natural” hierarchy, ex post facto.

The renowned author John McPhee uses a similar process but without a computer. He would cut up his notebook pages before he began writing, and then he would pin each note onto a bulletin board. Notes would be pinned over one and another creating a hierarchy. He would then stand back, stare at the notes, and re-sort them until he saw the way to tell the story. That’s how McPhee wrung order out of the chaos.

And that’s what made Framework spooky. Using the “framework process,” I had to approach my writing in a new way. I was being driven by the program’s design. As I worked at my nest building, I began to sense the software designer’s thought process. The feeling was palpable. Framework became my intellectual prosthetic. The brilliance of the programmer made me smarter. I had a pal, a work buddy. It was as if the software was alive, and I was learning new ways of thinking.

That was more than 20 years ago. Framework fell by the wayside, trampled over by newer, slicker user inter interfaces. Writing this little essay, for instance, I’m using a program designed specifically for writers. It’s called Scrivener, and it’s a winner.

By 2013, the poltergeist in the source code had ceded its territory to the Internet. Big Data and Crowd Sourcing envelop a whole new way of thinking. Social networking had overgrown the writing process like Kudzu. I’ve got a computer in my pocket, which is also a camera and a telephone. My SmartPen — when it isn’t breaking down — preserves stories people tell me. It has infinite recall, or about 4 gigabytes worth. Today everything a writer needs is right there on the screen. Research can be Binged or Googled for an answer. The computer is indeed an intellectual prosthetic. All that’s missing for me is that sweet ghost in the machine, the felt life and logic of that higher intellect: the programmer.

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