February 27, 2020

RIP the most influential man you’ve never heard of


A man named Larry Tesler passed away last week at the age of 74 in Portola Valley, California. You may not know who Larry Tesler was by name, but there’s no doubt that his invention is baked into the very wiring of your brain.

Larry Tesler, you see, was the man who invented the “cut, copy, paste” function on the computer. So whenever you make an introduction into a conclusion by moving it to the end, or grab a snippet of text from an online essay by your favorite Marxist cultural critic, or copy that cat gif from the internet into a direct message, you’re using the fruits of Larry Tesler’s intuition.

It’s often hard for us to see how radical a design choice like this was in retrospect. As the Washington Post notes in its obituary, for “his best-known innovation, Mr. Tesler adapted an age-old practice of schoolchildren—cutting out pictures and pasting them in scrapbooks—to computers.” This was an early example of user interface (UI) design, which defines terms of the user experience (UX), especially active in the world of pretentious Irish rock bands (U2).

Like many such breakthroughs, cut/copy/paste seems obvious, even inevitable, from our perspective. Scholars of science and technology studies call this belief an example of “technological determinism”—the mistaken understanding that technological changes were foreordained, flowing inexorably and logically from a rational series of problem-solving choices.

Instead, the process of technological advancement is more often a hodgepodge of false starts, missed opportunities, reversals of fortune, lateral movements, and moments of both brilliance and just plain good luck. If Larry Tesler hadn’t invented cutting and pasting, someone else would have … or maybe not, in which case we would all still be typing DOS-style command lines. Or something.

Anyhow. Before he was cut and pasted into that great clipboard in the sky, Tesler also worked at Amazon, where he pioneered the feature that allows the browsing customer to look at a preview of a book before buying. So, that’s … also good?

The Post notes that Tesler first became fascinated with computers “in the 1950s, when he saw [them] used to predict presidential elections.” Hmm. We can see that there is still room for improvement in some areas!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.