Sunday Sentiments: On the Invention of Writing

DailyDose_PosterSUNDAY SENTIMENTS: food for thought

Writing is a technological innovation. It had to be “invented,” and there was a time when it was “new.” Jay David Bolter reminds us that viewing “technology” solely as buttons and wires is a misapplication of its Greek root word techne, which meant an art or craft.[i] He also reminds us that both the medieval manuscript and ancient papyrus rolls would have been new “technologies” to their respective periods: “the development of mechanical printing and now writing by computer has affected our view of these previous writing techniques.”[ii] What was once true technological advancement has become, to our understanding, an ancient art form not to be confused with the computing machines of today. But of course, writing itself (when first introduced) was mistrusted, and even Plato—who used it so effectively to disseminate information—was deeply ambivalent.

The Greeks held oral culture in high regard. The memory, the spoken narrative, and the play dominated. Writing in ancient Greece consisted of wax coated clay tablets and the stylus, a metal instrument used to record language. In later ages, the scroll took its place and then enormous illuminated manuscripts of ink on vellum, bound in leather. By the time of Shakespeare you had smaller more rapidly produced folios with folded, sewn pages. Wood-block printing made reproduction easier, and moveable type (first introduced in the 11th century but not really gaining traction till after the Renaissance) made printing the way of the future. By the 18th century, text could be quickly and cheaply produced, broadsides gave way to lengthy epistolary novels, adventures and histories, and finally to the triple-decker genre explosion of the Victorian age. Print was ubiquitous–and soon, the average individual could produce print at home.

By the 19th century, the typewriter became a house-hold good. The average middle-class home could afford one, and carbon paper soon made copies easier to produce. It did not end there. Charles Babbage created the first mechanical “computer” in 1822, and Conrad Zuse invented the first programmable computer in 1938.[iii] Digital computers followed (and took up whole rooms). The first mass-produced computers arrived in 1953. The term “word processing” coined at IBM‘s Böblingen, West Germany Laboratory in the 1960s–though electronic typewriters had already been replacing the old-fashioned kind (I had one–it could “erase” and I thought that was amazing.) The first personal computer, manufactured by IBM, appeared in 1981. [iv] I bought my first desktop in 1995 (for a whopping $2200, though it had less processing power than a smart phone).  In the 21st century, the personal computer is more than a house-hold good; it is nearly a house-hold god.

“Writing” has changed, but the words stay the same–we still say we are “writing” and we still use a “notebook,” but we mean typing and we mean laptop computer. “Mail me a physical copy” means “send a digital format that is printable to my electronic in box.” We have reverted to the “tablet” and the “stylus,” only these are now electronic mediums. Text has replaced writing–and even typing has become less necessary with the advent of voice-to-text protocols. I speak, out loud, to my device. It records me, not on paper, but in the “cloud,” a great roving data center stored everywhere and nowhere, hovering like Jungian collective memory. Perhaps the day will arrive when even the data centers and servers will not be necessary–when devices will not be hand held but internal, when we will speak into an ever expanding oral culture and visual video and photo connectospehere, the digital versions of memory and theatre and cave painting. And when we arrive at that place, where “everything is special and so nothing is,” the digital will have become invisible, understood, innate–and boring.

And then, we will be ready once more for the “invention” of writing.


[i] Bolter, David Jay. Writing Space. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. (15)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Computer Hope.

[iv] Ibid.

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