Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Flip Wilson was a catchphrase tossed off occasionally by his character "Geraldine," who wanted you to know that she put on no airs: "What you see," she said, "is what you get."

The phrase took root. In 1971 Ron Banks and his Dramatics got a Top Ten single with "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" (Volt 4058); later in the decade, Arlene and Jose Ramos were putting out a newsletter for the nascent electronic-publishing industry; they called the publication WYSIWYG. By the early 1980s, WYSIWYG was a goal for computer software, and was no longer being read as a string of letters, but as an actual word. John Seybold apparently said it out loud first, and Jeff Jarvis was there when he did.

I was at an early publishing-industry seminar in California run by Seybold and he kept hearing us say we didn't want to have to enter all kinds of codes and not know what became of them until type spat out of a big photocompositor (now there's a word you don't hear every decade). We wanted to see it on our screens. The gentle and brilliant Mr. Seybold got up and said that what he heard everybody demanding was "what you see is what you get." He looked skyward as he calculated the acronym. W-Y-S-I-W-Y-G. He smiled an impish smile. And then he carefully prounounced it: "whiz-zee-wig."

And more than jargon was born. A way of creating and looking at content was given birth. I say this led to new ways to publish content in print and that led to computerized mark-up codes and it led to Quark and it led to the idea that anybody could create content and it led to HTML and it led to the browser and it led to the weblog, with a few detours and scenic stops inbetween.

In 1986, the term (in lower case, for some reason) made it into a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, ensuring its survival for many years to come.

Oddly, while everything is WYSIWYG these days, hardly anything really is WYSIWYG these days: content for the Web is text-editor stuff marked up with tags, and screen resolution seldom if ever translates exactly into print resolution. In 1984, MacWrite and MacPaint used resolution of 72 dots per inch, and the dot-matrix printer sold with the original Macintosh offered resolution of 144 dpi, a simple 1:2 scale which made translation from screen to print far easier than with other contemporary print applications; since that time, inkjet and laser printers have vastly improved print resolution, but screens haven't caught up.

Still, WYSIWYG is the goal. What you see, to the greatest extent possible, should be what you get. And this goes for politics as well as for PCs, which is why S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, currently sitting on George W. Bush's desk, needs his signature. The important stuff in the bill:

Not later than January 1, 2008, the Office of Management and Budget shall, in accordance with this section, section 204 of the E-Government Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-347; 44 U.S.C. 3501 note), and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Act (41 U.S.C. 403 et seq.), ensure the existence and operation of a single searchable website, accessible by the public at no cost to access, that includes for each Federal award--
  1. the name of the entity receiving the award;
  2. the amount of the award;
  3. information on the award including transaction type, funding agency, the North American Industry Classification System code or Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number (where applicable), program source, and an award title descriptive of the purpose of each funding action;
  4. the location of the entity receiving the award and the primary location of performance under the award, including the city, State, congressional district, and country;
  5. a unique identifier of the entity receiving the award and of the parent entity of the recipient, should the entity be owned by another entity; and
  6. any other relevant information specified by the Office of Management and Budget.

Two Senators from opposite sides of the aisle, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL), sponsored S. 2590; it passed the Senate unanimously. If ever there was a measure with serious bipartisan public support, it's this one. Mr Bush, whose desire to look like a fiscal conservative has long since been eclipsed by his failure to act like a fiscal conservative — a failure of WYSIWYG if ever I've seen one — can regain a measure of domestic credibility by giving this bill his prompt approval. And if he doesn't, he'll have some explaining to do, to you, to me, and to Geraldine.

The Vent

  17 September 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill