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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Colloquium Archive

Derek Van Ittersum

Name: Derek Van Ittersum, English Department

Presentation Title: "Five-Finger Inscription: Tracing the History of Failed Writing Technologies"

Date: April 6, 2006


In this multimedia presentation, I follow Bruno Latour's example of studying instances of "failed" technologies, and examine the components of one of the earliest computer systems to incorporate a word processor. By tracing out the network of rhetoric and technology incorporating Douglas Engelbart's NLS computer, I show how the hardware components, the software, and user habits all worked in concert to create new methods and forms of writing. Even though the mouse and graphical display were derived from the NLS, other integral elements have been left behind, taking with them the writing practices that made Engelbart's system truly unique. For new media researchers currently developing and promoting new forms of composing through images, video and databases, Engelbart's case demonstrates the difficulties in navigating the complex rhetorical and technological negotiations that are necessary to move innovative writing technologies and their products from prototype to widespread use.