Johnson, Steven: Tool for Thought: The word processor has already changed the way we write, but new software for searching personal documents may actually change the way we think. 2005.

THEMES: Johnson, Steven
YEAR: 2005
 

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NYTimes - BOOKS / SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | January 30, 2005

Essay: Tool for Thought

By STEVEN JOHNSON

The word processor has already changed the way we write, but new software for searching personal documents may actually change the way we think.

Tool for Thought
By STEVEN JOHNSON

Published: January 30, 2005

One often hears from younger writers that they can't imagine how anyone managed to compose an article, much less an entire book, with a typewriter. Kerouac banging away at his Underwood portable? Hemingway perched over his Remington? They might as well be monastic scribes or cave painters.

But if the modern word processor has become a near-universal tool for today's writers, its impact has been less revolutionary than you might think. Word processors let us create sentences without the unwieldy cross-outs and erasures of paper, and despite the occasional catastrophic failure, our hard drives are better suited for storing and retrieving documents than file cabinets. But writers don't normally rely on the computer for the more subtle arts of inspiration and association. We use the computer to process words, but the ideas that animate those words originate somewhere else, away from the screen. The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn't yet changed the way we think.

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Steven Johnson is the author, most recently, of ''Mind Wide Open.'' His new book, ''Everything Bad Is Good for You,'' will be published in May.