Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing

Book Review

Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing

by Michael Heim

Published by: Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 1989.

Price: $16 (paperback edition)


ISBN: 0-300-046-103

Reviewed by Phil Shapiro

The introductory chapter of this intriguing and ground-breaking book sets forth the scope of the book with a clarity uncommon in reflective books of this genre. The author's opening comments state: "'Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing' is an introductory study of the philosophical significance of the phenomenon of word processing." He then goes on to carefully explain that the book will constrain itself to this narrow topic. True to his word, he does not distract himself by discussing the details of any particular word processing program. Rather, his discussion and point of view deals with word processing as a general phenomenon.

To be sure, Electric Language is a scholarly book, written principally for an academic audience. Yet the flashes of insight that sparkle on many pages of this book make it worth the effort of plowing through the passages on Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and Heidegger. Of course, the ancients had little interesting of lasting value to say, and Heidegger's ideas can never be pinned down to an exact time and place, but it's good that someone at least gives these poor souls a respectful nod of the head.

Articulating Thoughts Many of Us Might Have Passed Through Our Minds Already

It's uncanny how the author of this book puts into words ideas that many of us have been thinking about already. Heim serves as a "perceptive fish, " taking time to examine closely the water we've all been swimming through unknowingly: "When we speak of word processing, we are speaking of a true phenomenon of our time, in the sense of something appearing with a certain historical uniqueness. But while such eventful things are phenomenal or striking in their appearance, the essential nature of such a phenomenon may not thrust itself upon us as easily as the recognition of it as an unprecedented appearance."

If we don't take the time to think about these things today, tomorrow we'll be so attuned to the benefits of word processing that we won't even be able to remember the world before them. We have a narrow window of opportunity to think these thoughts. While the future rushes at us with increasing speed, the past, too, is receding from us at an equivalent speed.

One of the concepts Heim examines is the idea that word processors facilitate the "external representation of thought." Those of us who can type quickly can "dump" our ideas onto a computer screen, and then play with the ideas on screen, rather than in our minds. Word processing beckons the tentative, preformed idea to emerge from the recesses of the mind. Embryonic notions, barely formed at all, feel bold enough to take up residence on your computer screen. Word processing, from a psychodynamic viewpoint, is an interesting study in " emboldening" technology.

Likewise, the emergence of typography in the 15th century went one step further as an "emboldening" technology: "One of Ong's most striking studies concerns the connection between the ascendancy of typography and the inauguration of modern logic." p. 63

Heim's remarks about Plato remind me of an anecdote I heard as an undergraduate student of philosophy. Apparently many of the ancient Greeks genuinely believed that reading diminished a person's mental capacity. Some early Greek educators went so far as to ban reading in schools.

Why were these great sages so mistaken in their view? Well, in the oral tradition of the early Greeks the capacity to listen and remember was far more important than the capacity to read. Recall, the greatest minds of ancient times took great pride in being able to recite The Odyssey from memory. From their frame of mind, reading diminished one's capacity to memorize, and "to memorize is to learn."

The fallacy of this reasoning is that reading promotes understanding, and understanding is a higher form of knowledge than rote memorization. True, when the printed word was introduced into the Greek classroom, the students in those classrooms had little incentive to engage in rote memorization. But their diminished capacity to perform rote memorization was far overshadowed by their increased capacity to understand.

What is language?

To think about the nature of word processing is to think about the nature of language. Heim chomps into some interesting ideas when he looks at the linguistic angle of word processing: "The chaos of details and of possibilities becomes manifest through language as language reduces chaos by ordering things in predictable relationships. Language, then, has power -- not solely in the control over things wielded by the users of language, but also and especially in the structural power language exerts over its users." p. 77-78.

Taking Michael Heim's train of thought a few steps further, if language is a tool, then all literate human beings belong to a user group: the "Human Language Users Group." It follows then that the your own local computer user group is a special interest group within that larger user group. No matter that the larger user group has no formal newsletter or membership roster. Anyone who reads or writes is given automatic membership privileges in that group.

Heim develops the concept that word processors give us the power to physically rearrange our thoughts on a computer screen: "The encoding of letters in the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) computer code not only permitted the transmission of natural-language at electronic speed; encoding natural language on computers makes possible a new approach to language as directly manipulable in new ways." p. 82.

So just as high-speed computers can use computer programs to perform great feats of number crunching (read: numerical manipulations), so too can human minds use word processors to perform unique new feats of "combinatorial concept collaging." (My words.)

The Psychic Framework of Word Processing

One of the most tantalizing chapters in Electric Language is chapter four, "The Psychic Framework of Word Processing." Here the author plunges into the heart of the mind. In discussing the nature of human thought, Heim quotes from a passage in Hubert Dreyfus's 1979 book, What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. "There is no doubt some temptation to suppose that since the brain is a physical thing and can be metaphorically described as 'processing information,' there must be an information processing level, a sort of flow chart of its operations, in which its information-processing activity can be described."

This sort of thinking leads one to reflect on the hierarchies of the brain operating system. Is there an equivalent of DOS in the mind -- an upper level information manager which can be called upon to per form information storage and retrieval tasks? And naturally this question leads to the question of the megabyte size of human memory's long term storage capacity and how much less expensive it is to add metaphorical SIMM's to your mind than it is to add physical SIMM's to your desktop computer system.

How Word Processing is Transforming Our Mental Habits

Just as human beings have habits of the body, so do they too have habits of the mind. Word processors help develop a creative habit -- a habit of regularly engaging in creative expression for fun and profit. Heim goes back to Aristotle to understand the nature of human habit: "Habit in the Aristotelian sense, is a proclivity for acting along the lines of certain potentials already developed through training and repeated practice."

The real beauty of Heim' s analysis is that he combines and synthesizes Aristotelian thinking with ideas expressed by some of the early pioneers in word processing development. In the mid-1960's, when the concept of word processing was emerging as a butter fly from its Silicon Valley cocoon, one of the early word processing pioneers , Douglas Englebart, wrote: "Both the language used by culture, and the capability for effective intellectual activity, are directly affected during their evolution by the means by which individuals control the external manipulations of symbols . . . We are introducing new and extremely advanced means for manipulating symbols. We then want to determine the useful modifications in the language and in the way of thinking that might result." Footnote 6, page 262. It's clear that the author of Electric Language did some real research legwork before assembling the ideas in this book.

Formulation: Thinking in Electric Language

Many of us wonder at the process of moving thoughts from mind to screen. Heim goes one step beyond wonder: he skillfully uses his word processor to describe that process in terms that illuminates the idea of "thought movement." "As I write I can put things directly in my writing. My stream of consciousness can be paralleled by the running flow of the electric element. Words dance on the screen. Sentences slide smoothly into place, making way for one another, while paragraphs ripple down the screen....[When using a word processor] Verbal life is fast-paced, easier, with something of the exhilaration of video games." p. 152.

He then goes on to analyze how the editing and composing aspects of writing are intermingled on the word processor screen. This discussion is concluded with interesting remarks on "writing as commitment." "Thinking, especially thin king in writing, is always bound up with an existential commitment, which is to say that our thought establishes and reflects an identity and distinctive life-project. In removing the sense of words being carved in stone, the word processor eliminates the blockage caused by anxiety about how one will finally appear." p. 153-54. If word processors make writing less daunting, and writing itself helps develops clarity of thought, then in some sense the actual act of word processing can have a positive effect on clarity of thought.

A Balanced Point of View

Adding both moral strength and intellectual integrity to Electric Language is the author's discussion in chapter seven, "Critique of the Word in Process," of the negative effects of word processors. The negative effect of word processors ranges from the more obvious, such as a degeneration in handwriting skills, to the more subtle, such as a decrease in the authoritativeness of the printed word. If anyone anywhere can easily write a book, that places an increased burden on the reading public to sort out the difference between books worth reading and books not worth reading.


If you've ever spent time wondering about the nature of human thought, and of how new information technology can serve to amplify and augment thought, you'll likely find some rich veins of thinking to mine in Electric Language. The book breaks new ground in many ways and deserves far more attention that it received in the literary and popular press. Let's hope that Michael Heim, the author of Electric Language, produces some follow-up writings on this subject. It's the Heims of this world that elevate the level of both our public discussions and private thoughts.

Recommended Related Readings

Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Dreyfuss, Hubert. Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. New York: Macmillan Free Press, 1985.

McCorduck, Pamela. The Universal Machine: Confessions of a Technological Optimist. New York: McGraw Hill, 1985.

Ong, Walter. Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Rheingold, Howard. Tools for Thought: The People and Ideas Behind the Next Computer Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Wresh, William, ed., The Computer in Composition Instruction. Urbana, Illinois. National Council of Teachers of English, 1984.

(The reviewer of this book takes a keen interest in the psychological dynamics between computers and human beings. He can be reached via electronic mail at: pshapiro@his.com)

[Supplementary note: Michael Heim's second book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, was released in paperback in 1993. This book has already gone through several printings.

In the last paragraph of the introduction to The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Heim says that he welcomes reader feedback on his books. You can reach Heim via Internet electronic mail at: mheim@earthlink.net

Given that Heim must have several hundred fans around the country, it's probably considerate to send well developed e-mail messages, rather than "hi there, Mike" messages. Still, it's quite exciting that one of the most original thinkers about technology and the human mind is just an e-mail message away from you. Online technology allows for far greater contact between authors and readers, a subject worthy of a book-length examination in its own right.]

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