Guest Post: Professor Jacqueline Grutsch McKinney on the evolution of writing

Thoughts at/about/from my desk

I write this post while sitting at my office desk. It is one of those classic, mammoth office desks with metal drawers flanking each side and room to slide a chair in the middle. The top of the desk—simulated wood—is nearly five feet long and two feet wide; the desk weighs as much as two of me. It’s a status symbol desk. It’s a relic.

When someone asks me what really has changed about writing in the last couple of decades, I think of this desk and of other artifacts and spaces of past decades and how, if we look closely, we can see the physical manifestation of past assumptions about texts and textual production right in the material objects.

Take my office desk. The large surface invites handwriting and the piling of papers and books. (Believe me, this invitation is hard to ignore.) The top drawer has a long shallow trough for pens and pencils, and a spot divided into little squares just right for paperclips and pushpins. The drawers along the left side are about six inches deep. The steel dividers split the drawers into two: one the perfect size for 8 1/2 by 11 inch sized papers and the other long enough for legal-sized documents. On the right, there’s a drawer intended for files. The assumptions about writing (and perhaps the teaching of writing) are evident here: writers need space to spread out books and papers; writers need writing utensils, paper, and files close at hand. Writers will need to affix their pages with clips and staples. Writers might share writing by posting it physically with pushpins.

So, what isn’t assumed about writing in my desk? The designers of my desk did not build it for a desktop computer—there is no keyboard drawer, there are no holes for cords, no shelf for CPU or printer. Having the chair position in the middle means moving the monitor to the side or moving away from the desk to talk to someone. The designers of my desk did not imagine I could do all of my writing—and in fact often do—on screen. I don’t just mean typing here. I mean that I can locate sources, get digital copies of sources, read and annotate those sources, draft, redraft, seek feedback from others by sharing drafts, receive feedback from others more easily onscreen than on paper. The designers of my desk might be surprised some 30-years later to know how little use I have for the drawers, how I would be surprised myself to know what is filed in my file drawer since it’s been so long since I’ve opened it.

What’s also intriguing to me is the degree to which computer designers may have built their hardware on the assumptions of the desks that already existed and how when our work moved from physical desktops to screens, the computer interface adopted some of the desk uses such as  “desktop” and file folders. Then, too, the design of the desk evolved as the technology did, and it is this tandem evolution of the technology changing and the furniture changing which shapes the way we work—the very way we write.

A better starting point might be to ask: what hasn’t changed about writing in the last 30 years? From my vantage point, it seems nearly everything about how texts are created, edited, and shared is different.

The desk

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