Weird Processing:

The Collision of Computers and Cultures at the Voice of America


It isn’t obvious today, when anyone can pick up a copy of Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer and prepare text in any of the major languages of the world, but it wasn’t so many years ago that writing anything on a computer except in English and a few Western European languages typically wasn’t feasible.  So in the early 1980s, when the Voice of America canceled the planned purchase of a mainframe computer system for its English-only central news department and solicited proposals for a distributed computer network to support all 40 of its broadcast language services, the prospects for the success of the procurement were far from certain.

I was one of two “computer guerrillas” who persuaded management to scuttle the centralized English-only system proposed for VOA by the information technology staff of our parent organization, the former United States Information Agency.  The other was my colleague Don Barth, a radio technician who had single-handedly installed a primitive network of early microcomputers in our central newsroom.  Don recruited me because I had done some computer programming in college during the middle 1960s and had assembled a couple of microcomputer kits as a hobby while working for VOA as a journalist.  I’m amazed in retrospect that two amateurs were able to derail the USIA project.  But those were simpler times.  The traditional bureaucratic rivalry between VOA and its parent agency undoubtedly helped.

Handwritten VOA Chinese script, 1986

(click image to enlarge)

The on-air talent had to decipher the handwriting and edits in real-time during a live newscast.  This led to an artificially slow speaking style in order to give the announcer enough time to figure out his next few words.

Casting for Type

At the climax of the Cold War, the majority of VOA broadcasters were preparing radio scripts for the “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news mandated by their legislative charter on a motley collection of electrical and mechanical typewriters, a few of which had actually been manufactured before World War II.  Some were almost impossible to maintain: it wasn’t easy to find spare parts for a Bulgarian typewriter in downtown Washington.  Even when the machinery worked properly, typing many of our languages required both dexterity and the patience to backspace and sometimes raise or lower the typewriter platen so base characters could be combined with diacritic marks to create the composite glyphs that would form the words.  In some VOA language services, typewriters were either unavailable or too difficult for the broadcasters to use; radio scripts were written by hand and edited by hand, and the scrawls were painfully—and often quite audibly—deciphered in real-time by the on-air talent.

We were therefore delighted when one of the four bids submitted in response to our request for proposals was a commercial product that already offered word processing in the majority of the VOA languages, at least in prototype, and clearly could be coaxed into supporting all of them.  The product was the Xerox Star, a computer workstation with what was at the time a radical design featuring a bit-mapped display, a graphical office motif with folders depicting filesystem directories and icons representing other objects, and copy and move and save and print operators which functioned by selecting one operand with a pointing gizmo called a mouse and dragging it to the location of the second operand on the computer monitor.

Xerox Star computer workstation, 1986

VOA purchased a few Star workstations, then accepted Xerox’s offer of a no-cost upgrade to new hardware with better performance.  The replacement boxes (Xerox model 6085) were indeed faster, but also uglier—no match for the elegant appearance of the original Star.

The ‘Net before the ‘Net

Not only that, but the Star workstation was the front end to a remarkably sophisticated distributed computing environment that had most of the major attributes of the modern Internet Protocol.  The Xerox Network Systems protocol and suite of services offered central or departmental filing, remote printing, electronic mail, authentication, and directory services for all the computers and users on the network.  The “IBM PCs” of the era offered vastly inferior facilities on the desktop, and either operated standalone or on networks which were comparatively primitive.  Xerox, like all the other bidders, proposed to install PCs in our English central news department in order to maintain a competitive price.  But at the insistence of the newsroom representatives on the evaluation team, we selected a contract option to provide Star workstations for the central news staff.  (We ultimately wound up upgrading to a somewhat faster successor to the Star product which ran the same software as the Star.)  Don Barth coined the name System for News and Programming for the new network; the acronym SNAP had a nice ring to it and, as lagniappe, a “snap” was the term the Reuters news agency used for what we in the United States referred to as a news “bulletin.”

The installation began in 1986.  Aside from the United Nations headquarters in New York, there is probably no place in America where so many people from so many cultures, speaking so many languages, are packed into a single building.  We figured some parts of the organization would have more difficulty assimilating the new computer technology than others and, with the help of the Xerox federal marketing staff, we prepared a fairly elaborate series of briefings and training sessions to ease the transition.  But we couldn’t anticipate all the reactions, and on  more than one occasion we were taken completely off-guard.

Of Newsmen and Mice

The first surprise came from the central newsroom, which had contributed two of the six representatives to the bid evaluation team.  Nevertheless, the news director was outraged at our choice, insisting that we should have arranged for the development of custom software to meet the News Division’s particular requirements rather than purchasing a general-purpose system which could support all the language services as well as the newsroom.  Many members of the newsroom staff chimed in after we made the mistake of deploying a new and somewhat flaky release of the Xerox workstation environment in order to take advantage of updated, higher-performance workstation hardware.  An independent newsroom protest was started by a copy clerk who was also a computer aficionado.  He circulated a jeremiad—written on the Xerox workstation, of course, and distributed widely as electronic mail through the XNS computer network—claiming no one would ever be able to comfortably use the workstation because of its reliance on this idiotic “mouse” device.

At one point, in desperation, we actually offered—perhaps threatened is more accurate—to reinstall the previous newsroom system, which was based on a generation of microcomputers that antedated the IBM PC and had a penchant for multiple-node crashes.  Not surprisingly, the offer was vehemently rejected and we were told to “go fix the problems with the Xerox system.”  Also not surprisingly, that was the response we had hoped for.  A subsequent and better debugged release of workstation software took the edge off the complaints even though it didn’t entirely stop the grumbling.

Meanwhile, we were proceeding to finalize the word processing capabilities in various languages.  A term in the contract gave VOA an opportunity to review the prototype for any language software package that wasn’t already a commercial product.  Actually, the Xerox software designers were delighted to gain access as free consultants to professional journalists who were native speakers of the various languages.  In most cases, these consultations went smoothly.  The Xerox representatives were happy with the suggestions they received on how to make the software more intuitive to native speakers and the VOA broadcasters were pleased to have been able to influence the delivered product.

As Bad As We Want

Not all these meetings were congenial, however.  I watched one morning in a makeshift lab as a tall, imposing Hungarian broadcaster sat motionless and listened intently while a rumpled computer scientist from Silicon Valley explained how his software could almost magically combine letters and diacritical marks of the language into composite glyphs, how it was consequently possible to dispense with the “stop keys” and other clunky mechanical contrivances required by a typewriter and therefore write intuitively, concentrating on the meaning of the words rather than the process of putting them on paper—or, in this case, on a bit-mapped computer monitor.

I was observing, but I confess I wasn’t paying much attention.  The computer scientist was Joe Becker, who had invented the Xerox Star’s multilingual technology and now was serving as the lead technical designer for its conversion into a commercial product; there wasn’t much I could contribute to the dialog between Joe and his Hungarian interlocutor.  Therefore, I didn’t pick up the warning signals.  Suddenly the broadcaster lurched up and, pointing with a shaking finger at the “virtual keyboard” on the computer monitor, announced in an angry but still sonorous radio voice: “This machine is an affront to my national heritage.”  Hungarian, he informed us, must be typed on a computer keyboard exactly as he typed it on his IBM Selectric typewriter.  No other input method was acceptable.  And then he stalked out of the room.  The consultation apparently had ended.

I was appalled, and a bit embarrassed since Joe’s input method was elegant and it was evident that, even in prototype, it had been finely implemented and neatly integrated into the general computing environment.  But the broadcaster was the end-user and I felt obligated to ask the question, no matter how foolish I knew it to be.  Would be possible, I inquired, to modify the software so its typing logic mimicked the IBM typewriter?  Joe, though obviously taken aback, didn’t hesitate.  “It’s an extremely flexible system,” he said, “we can make it as bad as you want.”

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© 2007 Chris Kern