Sunday Book-Thought 55

To make this essential point clear it helps to take an example used by Minsky and look at what is involved in understanding a piece of everyday equipment as simple as a chair. No piece of equipment makes sense by itself. The physical object which is a chair can be defined in isolation as a collection of atoms, or of wood or metal components, but such a description will not enable us to pick out chairs. What makes an object a chair is its function, and what makes possible its role as equipment for sitting it its place in a total practical context. This presupposes certain facts about human beings (fatigue, the ways the body bends), and a network of other culturally determined equipment (tables, floors, lamps), and skills (eating, writing, going to conferences, giving lectures, etc.). Chairs would not be equipment for sitting if our knees bent backwards like those of flamingos, or if we had no tables as in traditional Japan or the Australian bush. Anyone in our culture understands such things as how to sit on kitchen chairs, swivel chairs, folding chairs; and in arm chairs, rocking chairs, deck chairs, barber’s chairs, sedan chairs, dentist’s chairs, basket chairs, reclining chairs, wheel chairs, sling chairs, and beanbag chairs – as well as how to get out of them again. This ability presupposes a repertoire of bodily skills which may well be indefinitely large, since there seems to be an indefinitely large variety of chairs and of successful (graceful, comfortable, secure, posed, etc.) ways to sit in them. Moreover, understanding chairs also includes social skills such as being able to sit appropriately (sedately, demurely, naturally, casually, sloppily, provocatively, etc.) at dinners, interviews, desk jobs, lectures, auditions, concerts (intimate enough for there to be chairs rather than seats), and in waiting rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, courts, libraries, and bars (of the sort sporting chairs, not stools).
– Hubert L. Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992; rep. 1994 [Fourth Printing]), pp. 36-37.

Sunday Book-Thought 51

The reality, of course, is that every writer’s individual habits and practices are deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to extract patterns in support of generalizable conclusions – beyond the intense intimacy and commitment that the act of writing invariably demands. Some writers dictate aloud. Some write longhand and then type their work on a typewriter or computer. Some compose at the keyboard but then print out their work for handwritten revision. Others don’t need the hard copy. Some writers print everything out, mark it up, and then retype it themselves. Others hand it off to an assistant. A few still revise by (literally) copying and pasting strips of text. Some writers find the computer alienating, intimidating. Others see it as an intimate, profoundly unmediated experience. Some writers value the slowness of the pen. Some value the speed of the keyboard. Some chafe at the labor of retyping, others embrace it. Some writers are enamored by the small rituals of the process, the changing of the worn-out ribbon, the bright bell of the carriage return. Others are unsentimental. Some writers require an absolutely specific instrument – or setting, or time of day, or slant of light, just so. Others write on anything and everything, anytime, anywhere. Work your way through “The Art of Fiction” and its kindred features in the Paris Review – what George Steiner, in his own “Art of Criticism” interview, describes as “the largest collection of insight into this of any publication” – and you can find accounts describing all of these and more. The one inescapable conclusion is that our instruments of composition, be they a Remington or a Macintosh, all serve to focalize and amplify our imagination of what writing is.
Matthew G. KirschenbaumTrack Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing ( Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), pp. 22-23