1 Should everybody write? The destabilizing technologies of communication Dennis Baron [1. TITLE Slide] Should everybody write? That s the question to ask when looking at the cyberjunk permeating the World Wide Web. The earlier technologies of the pen, the printing press, and the typewriter, all expanded the authors club, whose members create text rather than just copying it. The computer has expanded opportunities for writers too, only faster, and in greater numbers. More writers means more ideas, more to read. What could be more democratic? More energizing and liberating? But some critics find the glut of internet prose obnoxious, scary, even dangerous. They see too many people, with too little talent, writing about too many things. Throughout the 5,000 year history of writing, the privilege of authorship was limited to the few: the best, the brightest, the luckiest, those with the right connections. But now, thanks to the computer and the internet, anyone can be a writer: all you need is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.
2 Baron, Should everybody write? 2 The internet allows writers to bypass the usual quality-controls set by reviewers, editors and publishers. Today s authors don t even need a diploma from the Famous Writers School. And they don t need to wait for motivation. Instead of staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper the way writers used to, all they need is a keyboard and right away, they ve got something to say. You may not like all that writing, but somebody does. Because the other thing the internet gives writers is readers, whether it s a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FBFs, Tweeters, and subscribers to the blog feed. Apparently there are people online willing to read anything. In the past, writing was restricted to a few die hards and adepts, and the question Should everybody write, if it ever came up, was answered with a resounding, No! [2. Socrates] Writing itself was a communication technology that came in for plenty of criticism in its early days. Socrates warned that writing was just a shadow of speech. Writing isn t interactive, he tells Phaedrus: you can t ask a text a question, because all it can do is repeat the same words back to you, over and over again. At best, writing is nothing but a mnemonic, a device not to teach us new things but to remind us of what we already know. But paradoxically, its danger as a mnemonic is that we will come to rely on it, so that according to Socrates, the ultimate effect of writing will be to weaken memory, not strengthen in. [3. Plato] We remember this because Plato wrote it down.
3 Baron, Should everybody write? 3 [4. Thoreau] Henry David Thoreau made pencils for a living and sought endorsements for his writing instruments from the likes of Emerson. But in Walden Thoreau suggests that not everyone should write, because not everyone has something to say: We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Every new communication technology has the capacity to expand the set of who gets to write and talk, who gets to publish and be heard. But expanding the authors club tends to be a byproduct of the technologies, not their intent. When writing came on the scene, very few could read, and fewer still could write. [5. Susa stones] If our interpretation of the Susa stones is correct, writing comes on the scene 7-8,000 years ago as a device for Mediterranean traders to track their inventory. The first writers used the technology of shaping and marking stones as a memory device to represent jars of olive oil, goats, and sheep. It was the ancient world s equivalent of a bar tab. Even after someone repurposed writing as a way to transcribe speech, and writers as we might think of them today came on the scene, only a few brave souls were tempted to try the technology, which came with a steep learning curve, required expensive or laborintensive materials, and for most people, it didn t seem to do anything that speech couldn t do better. In order for writing to spread, costs had to come down; materials had to be more easily accessible; writing technologies had to become more user-friendly; and writing itself had to offer something better than communicating the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth.
4 Baron, Should everybody write? 4 [6. Harry Potter] More and more people began to write, and the new technologies of writing enabled writers to create new genres. But even so, the rise of literacy was painfully slow. Harris reports the literacy rate in Greece during the 4 th and 5 th -century BCE as below 10% (and that was the figure for urban males; literacy among women and in rural areas wasn t much better than 1%. And yet letters were everywhere in ancient Greece: inscriptions on public buildings, legal documents, commercial texts, and literary and scientific ones. Even with arma virumque cano, Gallia est omnes divisa in partes tres, and et tu Brute, literacy rates were no better at the height of Roman civilization. In the Hellenistic period, the great library at Alexandria may have housed half a million scrolls at its peak, but still the average Egyptian didn t have a library card. [7. Ilbert de Lacy Seal] By the 12 th century, written documents were becoming the way to transact business in England, and scriptoria churned out copies of sacred texts. Still, not everybody wrote. The number of text creators remained small, as did the number of text copiers, and the number of people who could sign their names. This late 11 th -century Anglo-Norman charter transferring some English land to a French abbey is signed by Sir Ilbert de Lacy, his wife Hawise, and King William Rufus, the second son of William the Conqueror. It bears the earliest example of an English knight s seal as an authenticator. But none of the principals could write their names, and it s very likely that none of the signatories, who witnessed the document with three crosses, even made those crosses. The charter was probably created some time after the physical land transfer took place, with the scribe, not the author or the witnesses, filling in all the necessary details to commemorate the act.
5 Baron, Should everybody write? 5 Even though the age of print opened up publication opportunities for writers, the printing press is a copying technology, not a technology for text creation. Gutenberg copied bibles, after all, and while the press eventually created a demand for reading materials William Caxton was just one early English printer who commissioned original works many early printed books were reprints of sacred or classical works, or translations, rather than original works. [8. Gutenberg Bible] [10. Martin Luther] Readers as well as writers encountered obstacles. Received wisdom praises Protestantism for spreading literacy as a way to encourage the faithful to read vernacular translations of sacred texts for themselves, but even Martin Luther warned in 1520 of the danger of too many books in his view, you just need one good book, which you can read over and over the gift that keeps on giving not a lot of bad books that will fill your head with error or just confuse you. And later, in 17 th century England, a period known for the flowering of English letters, where even kings and queens composed poetry and the brand-new Royal Society
6 Baron, Should everybody write? 6 promoted science writing, literacy in London remained a mere 10% for men, a shocking 1% for women. But who should write was not the same population as who could write. The route to publication wasn t simple or direct, and even William Shakespeare couldn t put on a play without first getting a license from the Stationers Company. Not until the 19 th century did literacy in England reach about 70%. And in this period of exploding literacy we find explicit concerns being voiced over who gets to read and write, together with a sorting of the literate population into two groups: the functional literates, those who used their literacy to work in offices, shops, factories. The writers in this group were the copiers, not the creators of text, like the Ruler of the Queen s Navy in Gilbert and Sullivan s Pirates of Penzance, a clerk who began his climb from office class to officer class by copying all the letters in a big round hand. [9. English Round Hand] And the vastly smaller group of literati whose station in life allowed them to appreciate and exploit a higher education, to create texts, and to consume texts with some sort of higher-order understanding that ordinary people lacked. Concerns arose that too much literacy would elevate people above their station in life, causing depression, discontent, or even civil unrest. Thomas Carlyle complained that the explosion of reading matter made possible by the invention of the steam press in 1810 led to a decline in the quality of what there was to read. At the very least, literacy-controllers argued, reading too much exposed good citizens and the faithful to error and heresy. Yes, writing expanded the authors club, and later, so did the printing press, and eventually, by the end of the 19 th century, literacy levels rose over the 80% mark in Western Europe and the U.S. But the question of who gets to write has always been a vexed one, and every writing technology came with limits on who gets to be in the authors club who gets to create texts and not just copy them, and who gets to read, limits that were imposed and that continue to be imposed by governments, by religious authorities, and by social norms The pencil, the printing press, the typewriter, all expanded opportunities for writers, so long as they could clear the hurdles imposed by publishers, government censors, or the church. In terms of raw numbers, however, all of these technologies benefited copyists more than they benefited the creators of texts.
7 Baron, Should everybody write? 7 [11. Type-Writer ad for copyists] With the typewriter, as with the press and the big round hand before it, everyone s a copyist. This 1875 ad in The Nation for the Remington Type-Writer reads, in part, a machine now superseding the pen.... anyone who can spell can begin to write with it.... It is worked without effort, and is not liable to get out of order.... Young persons acquire its use with wonderful ease and interest.... The benevolent can, by the gift of a Type-Writer to a poor, deserving young woman, put her at once in the way of earning a good living as a copyist. [12. Mark Twain typewriter] Mark Twain wrote about this newest writing technology, I will now claim until dispossessed that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature.... The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to [William Dean] Howells.... He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered. [from Twain s essay, The First Writing-Machines. ]
8 Baron, Should everybody write? 8 But to make this early celebrity-endorsement of typing, Twain dictated to a typist rather than composing directly at the keyboard. [13. typing schoolchildren] This 1930s experiment put portable typewriters on the desks of schoolchildren around the country and proved that typing students outperformed nontypists on standardized tests in all their subjects. According to teacher reports, typing students even had better handwriting than nontypists. But despite such positive results, two factors combined to keep typewriters off desks: it was the Depression, and schools couldn t afford to replace pencils with typewriters; plus it proved too difficult to train the teachers to use typewriters. So instead of a widescale adoption of typewriters to create knowledge, the machines were relegated to dedicated typing classrooms, where students were trained to copy all the letters in Courier 12 pt. so that they could eventually win jobs as office clerks. [14. Bell s notebook] Unlike other communication technologies, which effectively limited who could read and write, the telephone immediately offered the opportunity for anyone to talk to anyone. Preservers of the social status didn t like this. They sniffed that all you had to have was a nickel for the payphone, and you could cross social lines at will, entering homes over the wires where you had no hope of being admitted should you knock at the door.
9 Baron, Should everybody write? 9 [15. Gray s pay phone] But telephones were for talking, not for writing. They might have destabilized social class (and despite complaints about this, it s not clear that they really did), but in the long run people didn t worry so much about the democratizing thrust of the phone, since access to speech was nowhere near as guarded as access to writing. [16. Dial M] Of course, as we see in this still from Alfred Hitchcock s Dial M for Murder, there are times when not everyone should make a call. [17. Time cover] Enter the computer. People worked with text on mainframes, to be sure, but the machines strength lay in number crunching; they weren t writing machines. The personal computer too was initially billed as a work processor word processing, a
10 Baron, Should everybody write? 10 phrase deployed widely by IBM in its advertising and training literature, was still the province of the typewriter. Like earlier communication technologies, the computer had to overcome some obstacles before it was widely adopted as a writing tool: costs had to come down; the machine had to become user friendly; and it had to allow writers to do what they used to do with older technologies (pen, typewriter) only better (faster, more efficiently, with a superior product). As word processing software was perfected and hardware improved, the PC replaced the typewriter as the text copying machine of choice in American offices. But along the way something unusual happened: once the PC was hooked up to the internet, copyists of text began to create text as well. And as the personal computer claimed its space in the writer s toolbox, it enabled the creation of new internet-enabled genres: , web page, IM, blog, social network pages, tweets, and videos. The computer combined with the internet affords writers something they never really had before, the ability to bypass traditional publication controls. To repeat, all you need is a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks. Given that kind of access, more and more of us are finding something to write about, whether momentous or trivial, positive or negative. And while throughout history authors have wondered whether anyone would ever read what they had to say, on the internet there seem to be readers for every text. As a result the authors club is expanding in ways it never has before, and with that expansion comes new concerns about how to control this particular literacy explosion. Because in addition to all the good texts out there in cyberspace, there s pornography, fraud, and hate. [18. hate sites]
11 Baron, Should everybody write? 11 [19. wikipedia] And Wikipedia. [20. Everyone is writing] In a 1999 New York Times op-ed, educational reformer Theodore Roszak complained that computers prevented us from writing. To him, a child with a pencil in hand is ready to write. A child with a crayon in hand is ready to draw. [21. Roszak and the pencil]
12 Baron, Should everybody write? 12 [22. Draw this ad] But the pencil didn t turn us all into writers, and despite the promise of the Famous Artists School, turning us loose with crayons didn t make us all artists either. In contrast, the computer facilitated exactly what Roszak warned that it would prevent, making children, and adults, ready to write, and even Roszak admitted in his critique of the computer-processed word that he much preferred WordPerfect for DOS to the steeltipped dip pen which had been a torture for him when he learned to write in school. In any case, today the question, Should everybody write? is rendered moot by the fact that everybody appears to be using their computers, and their cell phones, for writing. And so the new question seems to have become, How can we control these writers and their explosion of text? Although Geoffrey Nunberg has rightly pointed out that from the earliest days of writing there has always been too much to read, critics bemoan the internet s information glut, and they seek to control access to, or censor outright, the more dangerous parts of cyberspace. There are firewalls and filters to block prohibited topics or content; plus the tethering of devices like smart phones or the soon-to-be-released ipad to limit or control what writers can do. But there are other ways that we re controlling authorship that may be less traditional, and a bit more subtle. [23. Google/Brandeis] As we write on our computers, we re giving up our privacy in ways that writers never did before, not just exposing ourselves or our personas on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, but also by leaving digital fingerprints that allow both businesses and the government to log our keystrokes and track our clicks. Back in 1890, Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, concerned about the intrusiveness of photographers and journalists, warned in their essay, The Right to Privacy, Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual... the right to be let alone. Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops. [Harvard Law Review 4 (Dec. 15, 1890)]
13 Baron, Should everybody write? 13 [24. Nobody knows you re a dog] We used to think that the internet offered a kind of anonymity that would allow us to express ourselves more freely than ever, taking any pose or persona we want. But if everyone from Sun MicroSystems CEO Scott McNealy, who is supposed to have said back in 1999, You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it, to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who insisted in an interview this year that his company is only trying to adapt to the needs of Facebook users, then privacy is indeed dead, even if only college students, Google, and the NSA are willing to admit it. [25. Zuckerberg/CCTV] But now that everyone is writing, we re going beyond the simple invasions of privacy outlined by Warren and Brandeis to a more complex inversion of public and private. Putting ourselves online allows other users not just to watch our online behavior and send us context-motivated ads or pack us off to Guantanamo for a nice waterboarding session, but also to remix the posts they find or create mashups of our posts with theirs.
14 Baron, Should everybody write? 14 [26. colbert, zittrain, and the unabomber] Accompanying the everyone is writing phenomenon is a growing amateurization of online text, which is democratic in spirit but which also calls into question the nature of intellectual property, the writing, graphics, and music that we post on line. Internet-published text means writers are easily ripped off, and plagiarism has become that much easier as we see in everything from schoolsucks.com and the online term paper mills to the creative plagiarism of the award-winning teen-age German novelist, Helene Handelmann. But every communication technology brings with it opportunities for fraud and cheating, and eventually we manage to get enough safeguards in place so that any counterfeits that get past the controls can simply be chalked up to the cost of doing business. [27. phony as a 3 dollar bill] Jonathan Zittrain warns that even with plagiarism and mashups, too strict an adherence to traditional notions of copyright may limit the generativity and inventiveness of the Web. Kevin Kelly goes even further, simply announcing that writers will have to hang onto their day jobs, because royalties will simply dry up because law or no law, online text will inevitably be treated as communal property. The late John Updike pushed back against Kelly, and Anthony Grafton suggests that the age of the seamless cybertext is far from a reality. But since most writers don t live off their royalties anyway, there s a bigger danger to the status of authorship than a revised economic model for writing. It s the growing centralization of online services, with Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia controlling larger and larger blocks
15 Baron, Should everybody write? 15 of our information and what we can do with that information (and maybe Zappo s controlling the shoes we buy). This represents a particular kind of monopolization of our data by for-profit corporations, who unlike most libraries or public utilities are responsible not to the people as a whole, but to shareholders and boards of directors. The mission of libraries is typically openness and accessibility, but Google & Co. are bastions of secrecy and digital rights management, renting you the privilege of reading online, but retaining ownership of text and limiting access by distributing it according to a carefully calculated business model. Add to this corporatization of the data stream the trend toward cloud computing. With the spread of the next generation of computers netbooks, smartphones, and tablets, all of them devices with limited storage space we will be encouraged more and more to turn to software located not on our hard drives but on a remote server. For some users, that server will be at home or at their university or office. But for most, it will be a Google or Microsoft or other proprietary server, accessible by subscription. And we will be encouraged/forced to cede control of our data to these remote servers as well. The advantage of cloud computing is that all our digital files will be available to us, no matter where we are or what computer or computer-like device we re using to access it. The disadvantage is that our texts will slip from our control to the control of the for-profit corporation that manages the cloud. Is that so bad? Just as we trade convenience for accuracy when we rely on Wikipedia as our first resort for information, we ll trade convenience for control, which may be worth the trade until Amazon decides it doesn t like what s on our Kindle and takes it back; until Facebook decides we ve committed an illegal act and blocks us; until Google loses our data or turns it over to the government, or to our employer, or some other third party, with our without a subpoena or warrant. Or until I log on and instead of the draft of my next book I get the dreaded Error 404, file not found. [28. File not found] Of course there s always someone who objects to a new technology roll out. Critics of the first wheel probably argued that round technologies sped up the pace of life too much compared to the old way of doing things, preferring animals for locomotion or simply keeping their feet planted firmly on the ground.
16 Baron, Should everybody write? 16 [29. the oldest wheel] [30. in-dash changer] And of course, as we see from this 1956 ad for a Chrysler with in-dash record changer, not all new technologies catch on.
17 Baron, Should everybody write? 17 [31. should everybody write?] But the computer is now the writer s tool of choice, and even though pencils still sell in the billions annually, more and more people are joining the authors club and uploading text to the internet. So, finally, again, I ask, should everybody write? More people are writing now than ever before, if by writing we mean creating text for readers whether those readers consist of a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FB friends, Twitter followers, or other denizens of cyberspace. More people are writing in North America, in Europe, and even in parts of the world where individuals have not typically had a public voice. Yet one critic of the One Laptop Per Child Program echoes Victorian concerns of educating people beyond they station when he argues that giving computers to masses of children will create discontent: Access to ebay and YouTube isn t going to give them clean water and freedom from disease. But it may help breed resentment and discontent where it hasn t been before. [Gene Spafford, cited in Zittrain, 240] Functional literacy remains a goal, but creative literacy, putting the tools of meaning production into everyone s hands, that s still seen as too destabilizing, and not just in China or Myanmar, but also in Silicon Valley. For those who are already writing, the question is becoming, are they producing anything worth reading? We may not think so to repeat, there s a lot of junk being cranked out. But then again, somebody seems to think so there seems to be no lack of readers for even the most inane of cyberposts. Previous technologies of writing did not guarantee quality either. There are plenty of clay tablets, manuscripts, printed books, mimeographed screeds and xeroxed memos, that should never have seen the light of day. To Nunberg s observation that there has always been too much to read, I might add that there has always been a lot of stuff that no one wants to read. So, should everybody write? Sure, because it increases the chances that there will be something you will want to read, and you can just ignore the rest. Perhaps the more interesting question is, Will everyone continue to write? Cell phone users are texting more than they re talking, and computer users everywhere are creating and publishing text at growing rates. Most digital texts are short, and most aren t keepers, even though it turns out to be difficult to wipe out a text once it s been
18 Baron, Should everybody write? 18 uploaded. But there are explosions of fan fiction, online essays, blogs, extended chats and commentaries, and explorations of text, audio and video, and that sort of text production doesn t seem to be slowing down much. Perhaps the predicted shift from PCs and laptops to tethered devices like the ipad, which really promise to be entertainment devices rather than text-production machines, could signal an eventual decline in internet-enabled authorship. These are machines that permit text entry, though they re billed as entertainment machines, not writing tools. I don t really think the ipad will prompt a decline in card-carrying authors. After all, the original PCs were not text-production machines either. What s more likely to happen is that writers will see the usefulness of tablets, as we once saw, a mere 30 years ago, the usefulness of PCs, for what we do. And developers will reengineer tablets so that, while they satisfy the needs of gamers and video watchers and the readers of ebooks and newspapers, they also allow us to key in and upload our textual, musical, and visual creations. Maybe one day we ll all use Star-Trek-like communicators pinned to our chests to create our texts just tap and talk but I think that speech-to-text software is still a long way off, and for the near term we ll be keyboarding, and doing so in growing numbers. No matter what you or I think of their products, writers gaining access to the internet seem to have no trouble finding a subject to write about, and no trouble finding readers to read their output. However new communication technologies destabilize the conditions of writers and readers, writers will continue to find ways to get the word out, and new genres to clothe the word in. [32. The ultimate text replicator? Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.]
This essay was originally published in the online edition of the Boston Review, on 8 March 2010, under the title What Does That Server Really Serve? This document is part of, the GNU Project s exhaustive
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