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Cut and Paste

Wed Jan 20, 2021

M John Harrison was interviewed tonight by the chair of the Goldsmiths Prize, Erica Wagner. One audience member asked a question of Harrison about what the biggest changes in his writing process have been in the last half century. He replied “cut and paste” when he first got an Amstrad word processor, because it makes redrafting infinitely easier than the previous way of using actual scissors and glue.

I do not doubt this.

It reminded me of a thought experiment that asks what would be possible if our tools for prose were as sophisticated as the ones we have for writing software. This is not about AI or machine learning as a means to generate text. I have little interest in that domain. It isn’t even about using computers to examine the syntax of a text for stylistic errors. To some extent they are solved problems. More I am interested in what it would be like if it were really feasible to use the tooling and approaches that are used when hacking code. What if there was a direct equivalent for test driven development? What if Word actually understood sentences and words in a text as well as Emacs or VSCode or PyCharm understand functions, data structures, and expressions?

What new writing would then be possible?

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