Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing as Technology

We are accustomed to think of books, and print in general, as old and familiar things. To us, books are the "real" which may or may not be supplanted by the "virtual" -- Kindles, Nooks, and Google e-books. This makes it a bit difficult for us to recover the sense that the book, like the scroll before it, and the clay tablet before that, is a technical development, one which initially seemed strange to a world which had not known any means of preserving words and keeping them "stored" for another day. There's a video, which I like to call "Book 1.0" on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. The book is no more a "natural" object than is a smartphone or an automobile; it has simply been around so long that we have gotten used to it, and now begin to fear that we may "miss" it.

Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit scholar and pupil of Marshall McLuhan, was one of the first scholars to realize and emphasize the technological status of writing. For Ong, writing not only changes our practical lives, it actually restructures our consciousness. This happens in a number of ways; our tendency to think of knowledge as persistent, as capable of being stored elsewhere -- and with it our sense that we ourselves don't have to precisely remember anything -- is one key effect. Beyond this, though, our whole sense that by naming, cataloging, and finding form in things that we are in fact re-figuring the world; that our mental abstractions seem to have shape and permanence; that there can even be a thing such as "capitalism," "Marxism," or "psychology" are also after-effects of writing and print. Print, by making massive amounts of text cheap to make, distribute, and preserve, accelerated these changes; with the dawn of the internet, this process has taken another enormous leap. The disappearance of objects -- the book, the music CD, the videocassette or DVD -- and their replacement by the mere making available of media streamed from somewhere else, is one notable result of this accelerating process.

At the same time, Ong emphasized the complexity and sophistication of the non-literate mind (he disliked the term "pre-literate" at it presumes a progression toward writing as inevitable). The ancient Irish bards had to memorize hundreds of lengthy poems; in the 1920's in Yugoslavia, Ong's mentor Walter Lord found pairs of men who could, by singing interlocked lines back and forth between each other, reproduce an epic poem of tens of thousands of lines. Such poems are as ancient as speech itself, and a few -- the Elder Edda, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- survived into the manuscript era, the print era, and are now downloadable as e-books. And yet, in this disposable era, when computers and cellphones complete the circuit from shiny new tech devices to e-rubbish in a landfill in a few short years, the old belief -- that writing something down preserves it -- may yet be reversed.

Some say that E-books aren't proper books at all. Some point to events such as Amazon's silent deletion of copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm from Kindle readers as a cautionary tale. The Pew Charitable Trust recently completed a survey of e-books and readers, and some of its findings are quite unexpected.

So where do we go from here? Will e-readers be the death of the book? Will a dusty old paperback become a sort of weird antique, joining 78 rpm records, 16 mm film, and Betamax cassettes in the dead media junkpile? Or will we always, whatever else we have with them, have books?


  1. Though symbolic content (e.g. numbers, words, images, pictures) is being created, stored, and circulated through contemporary, mostly digital, media platforms, the application of that content has not changed. As has always been the case, communication and the sharing of ideas for the hope of establishing theories or building upon existing concepts is still the main purpose of texts. Computers still resemble books in their function. Book pages are like gigabytes or RAMS in their capacity for memory and data storage. The greater the width and the stronger the binding of a book, the larger the memory space.

    I've often wondered about the reception of the typewriter. As I sit here typing away I am made aware that I am not actually writing. I do make it a habit to write verses/lyrics, initially, by hand then I transfer them onto a virtual document. They are definitely distinct activities. I have read, on various occasions, that the phone was met with ire and condemned as a sinister device, but I haven't come across any anecdotes regarding any controversies over the introduction of the typewriter.

    Printed books (codex) will persist as indispensable repositories of knowledge and for just plain ol' entertainment. Even if they went the way of vinyl, which has seen a remarkable resurgence, their rediscovery would be inevitable. If improv theatre and freestyle rapping are still going strong, millennia after druids and shamans spun their mythological and folk yarns, then it's highly probable that paperbacks and hardcovers will be sought by future generations.

    I'd like to see books become a sustainable medium. I can't imagine the number of old or primitive forests that have been clearcut to mass produce the millions of crappy bestseller titles sold in supermarkets around the continent (by Dan Brown, James Patterson etc.). The ecological impact is immense. There's no reason why they couldn't be made of hemp or 100% post-consumer paper.

    I'm not sure if this was one of the links, but I really enjoyed this skit and thought I'd share it.

  2. As a visual artist that loves making collages I find the printed word/image vital to my process. I am aware that virtually everything that can be done with a pen and paper or scissors and glue can now be done with a computer program, but what about the feel of paper in your hand?

    I am also a ceramic artist and being able to touch and physically move the medium is an extremely rewarding part of creating. Again, I am aware of 3D design programs but being unable to handle the design is problematic for a kinesthetic learner like myself.

    I also dislike reading and viewing text or images from a backlit screen. I suffer from ophthalmic auras that lead to migraines. They are basically just floating sparkly dots that move across my field of vision and obscure it to the point where it is painful to try to keep viewing anything. Long amounts of time spent viewing anything too bright, including computer screens, can trigger an aura.

    I think there will always be a place for print because it is a more comfortable viewing experience for many.

    -Christine Woolbright