Visible and Hidden Transcripts: Word Domination and Paths to Resistance




Claire's story

Clippie and friends

Word dominance

The public transcript

Transcript traces

Ideology saturation

Through thick and thin

Paths of resistance

Assignment Possibilities





As the dominant word processor of the twenty-first century, Microsoft Word possesses enormous power.  Its dominance is a relatively new state of affairs.  Wikipedia's entry on the history of Microsoft tells the familiar history. (Interestingly, Wikipedia has set this page as protected so that it cannot be edited without proper authority. In other words, this particular entry can no longer be constructed by users, rather its (re)construction, in violation of the open-editing definition of the wiki, has been restricted to approved experts.)

Programmer Richard Brodie wrote the first version of Word in 1983 for the DOS-based IBM PC (Wikipedia).  The word processor field was crowded in the 1980s:  Wang, Wordstar, Volkswriter, Multimate, WordPerfect, and ClarisWorks reigned at different companies and schools, selected individually for whatever features seemed important. Word, however, was different for two reasons.  First, it was the first word processor to use a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) graphical interface (Wikipedia).  This means that instead of seeing a little symbol ^B, to tell the writer that the word following is bolded, the word itself is bold. 

Second, Microsoft had selected Word as its preferred word processor.  As Microsoft moved towards dominating the operating system field, it also worked to dominate the software field.  Creating Office Suite was part of that strategy as Nathan Newman, project director of NetAction, an activist organization dedicated to internet advocacy, explains:  “By linking spreadsheets, word processors, and databases in one package that could easily exchange data, Microsoft's Office Suite was able to overwhelm the makers of individual programs.”  Newman notes that by 1997,  Microsoft Word had 80% of  the word processor market share .  Today it is over 90%. 

Thus, Microsoft Word reigns as the standard.  New word processors are customarily measured against it and valued more highly when they can work well with Word.  For example, in September, 2004 a “landmark software” package was announced by the Advanced Centre for Technical Development of Punjabi Language, Literature and Culture in India.  The program is lauded as a landmark because it mimics Microsoft Word despite the fact that Punjabi uses a non western script.  The program has been named “Akhbar” – which means “word” in Punjabi (Pandher, 2004). 

Word's standards, assumptions, ideologies -- its defaults -- have wielded more power as they became naturalized. In other words, their invisibility means they are not interrogated. Even though a writer can turn off the Office Assistant, change the defaults, ignore spelling and grammar checks, how likely is she to do this if Word's worldview is assumed to be the only possible one? We may complain about Clippie, but don't we assume he can write a letter more correctly than we can? Don't we assume Clippie's "correctness" makes his letter better?

Microsoft Office 2007 recently announced the demise of the Clippie icon, replacing the trying-too-hard-to-be-friendly icon with the Ribbon -- a menu that groups related commands together. There will be no more Clippie to hate and the Ribbon, unlike Clippie, can be made temporarily invisible but cannot be turned off. The language describing the arrival of the Ribbon is stripped of cute metaphor. No more dolphins diving into the sea or purring cats. The Ribbon's selling point is efficiency. It will save time. It allows speed -- the abstract that dominates the rhetoric of the business world.

Interrogating the ideology of speed is necessary work but beyond the scope of this essay. Speed forms an essential part of the public transcript of companies like Microsoft and Apple, however, because it sells products. James Scott's work with the public transcript provides an analytical framework useful to instructors asking students to define and interrogate ideology.