The Obsolescence of Writing

Zlatko Wurzberg

I always refer to my work as writing, whether it’s composing a new text, or, as is more often the case, translating an already existing one. I use the common word ‘writing’ in the sense of producing a text, despite the fact that for the last twenty years I have almost exclusively typed texts, starting with the first Macintosh PowerBook in the early 1990s. In the beginning, I would write a text outline by hand, elaborate on this on the screen, then make corrections on paper, and in the end, insert these back in the text on the screen. At the time, I considered the computer as a typewriter. These days, I hardly ever write by hand, perhaps a reminder, a few words, but only as something convenient and ephemeral.

Until recently, I considered all of this as writing, whereas it has now become fairly clear to me that these two modes do not fall under the same category. I realized this by seeing toddlers who haven’t yet learned letters, already using the keys on their iPad, or recognizing numbers on the remote control, although they do not yet know how to draw figures on paper. I realized that one can become literate, without being able to delineate characters on a surface, and one can learn to recognize, distinguish and use these characters and their shapes as well as we do. Naively, I thought that typing text on a screen is more or less the same as typing text on a type­writer; that the same purpose of the work means it is also equal in nature. This results from the assumption that cognitive processes are abstract, detached from the body and its gestures. However, although in both instances one is involved in the act of typing, the typewriter is just an instru­ment, a kind of sophisticated pencil that doesn’t replace but rather complements the hand, leaving a trace of standardized letters on paper. The typewritten text keeps its materiality, its objective character, in the same way as a shoemaker makes shoes or a tailor sews a suit. In this case, the technique is not yet dominant, but useful, precious. In contrast, writing a text by typing it on a computer keyboard means changing not just the means but also the media of writing. The text, even when finished, remains in a fluid state; it exists as a kind of blueprint that has yet to be concretized in one form or another.

Of the text that I daily produce, there’s a small amount of handwritten or printed words in various forms such as stickers or printed papers, and this is more by concession to the habit of relating to objects than what’s demanded by the work itself. Therefore, if I’d make a distinction between the two activities of writing and typing, it seems to me that writing should be included into what the German philosopher Günther Anders charac­terized as marked by the fundamental outdatedness in the self-sufficient world of technology. And Anders’ method of exaggeration should also be applied to the phenomenon of writing: the tendency to transform the world into a machine. As Anders explained almost half a century ago: ‘Hereby I want to designate the fact – I know it may seem like an audacious thesis – that the contempo­rary world, as a whole, transforms into a machine, that its becoming a machine is taking place.’ And: ‘the everyday world is primarily a world of things and devices that includes, of course, also human beings; but no longer a human world, which, among other things, contains things and devices.’ Following his radical analysis of the harmful effects of technology, one can conclude that the loss of the function of handwriting could be considered as one aspect of the transformation of mankind. We know that psychologists and neuro­scientists are in the process of revealing the connection between writing and the cognitive processes of memorization, learning, imagi­nation, etc. At the time of Anders’s writing, the French anthro­pologist André Leroi-Gourhan basically came to the same conclusion (particularly in his Le geste et la parole, 1964): ‘The hand that liberates speech: this is exactly the conclusion that paleon­tology draws … This ‘cerebral’ view on evolution now appears inaccurate and it seems that the documentation is sufficient to demonstrate that the brain has benefited from advances in locomotory adaptation, instead of inducing them.’ The long process, whereby the pencil was adapted to human use, after which mankind acquired and automated movements of the hand that produce coherent handwriting, and which reflect some of our character features, recog­nizable in a distinctive style of writing, is now disappearing under our eyes, in the same way as other skills that were learned by the use of a tool have declined. For example, drawing, the representation of the visible world, which precision was achieved by the harmony of hand-eye coordination, disappeared from the common use with the arrival of photography. Its outdated­ness in artistic expression marks Rauschenberg’s 1953 erase of William de Kooning’s drawing. Just as, much earlier, the art of memory, ars memoriae, disappeared, which historical importance in antiquity Frances Yates demonstrates in her eponymous book.

It could be that writing will share the same fate as drawing and will become a hobby, whereby its reason is to lag behind the latest tech­nol­ogies. This naturally leads to an emphasis on the aesthetic features of writing. This has always been one of its characteristics, but by the loss of its immediate utilitarian function, the written text comes close to the image; all its variations – the correlation between a white background and dark characters, the spaces between words, etc. – become significant; everything that has been demonstrated by Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés in 1897. Victor Hugo has written illuminating pages on the replace­ment of one medium by another that entails the cultural twist in the chapter ‘This Will Kill That’, about the book killing the edifice, in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Many debates today still draw nihilistic conclusions from this argument, on dimin­ishing high values of education, arts and culture, prizing the prior world of meditation, skills, authenticity, etc. How all this is just futile nostalgia, Anders expressed in another passage of his work The Obsolescence of Man: ‘Thus, the claim that we are using our tools is incorrect and too euphemistic. We, who are ‘thrown’ into this world of gadgets that we, of course, shortly after this ‘insertion’ accept as unique and self-evident, we can not defend ourselves from being taken in its service – no citizen of the industrialized world can decide on whether or not to use gas or electric light or running water or radio in his everyday life. He must use them. And he must do it with delight.’

Writing, of course, isn’t only a cognitive phenomenon, but also a cultural institution that adapts its various modes to different social and cultural realities in which this writing happens. If we think that writing is independent from its support, that cognitive processes are abstract, separate from the body, and that a written text is only an unencumbered communication channel, we can certainly ignore the differ­ence between writing and typing. However, because we now know that cognitive processes are deeply rooted in physical activity (scientists speak of ‘embodied cognition’), one naturally draws the conclusion that in this transition some­thing important has been lost. The metaphor of movement, behaving in space, displacement, was used to represent writing, as they both basically obey similar cognitive processes. If we assume that bodily movements replicate processes of thinking, do we not risk a regression of these cognitive representations by being reduced to techno­logically assisted work? It is evident that by moving only the fingertips one doesn’t produce the same text in the same manner as by the whole gesture of writing, not only in its visible form, but also in its content. By typing fast or slow, with small or capital letters, with this or that typeface, instantly deleting and pasting words, etc., we produce a uniform text, that can be instantly modified. We’ve been given pre-constituted elements which we don’t have to shape ourselves. We immediately have the optimal form of writing, determined and stabilized, which we previously had to acquire through a long-term process, with attempts, eliminations, repetitions, in order to specify, little by little, the initially given structure by interaction with the environment. With writing it is probably the same as with thinking: it happens in the correlation of abstract a priori elements and the acquisition of experiences. Writing does not repeat a fixed structure, but models itself through lifetime experiences and stabilizes through skill. Thus it is part of the epigenetic development of the brain, like any other ability that man acquires through experience during his individual development. Now, if instead of handwriting we digitally input text into a computer, doesn’t this narrow down writing to a purely mechanical activity? To the mechanical, which is the opposite of the empirical, hence individual, which is the opposite of human life?

For now, we mainly see the utilitarian side of typing a text on a computer keyboard and it is risky to speculate about the possible consequences that the loss of handwriting could have, or already has, in culture generally, and particularly in reading. Is our attention, concentration, memorization of text transformed by changing the media that supports it? When we read on screen, are we as concentrated as we are when we read on paper? If contents modulate depending on their support, does the media, by its characteristics, change our relation to cognition? These questions concern the physio­logical, neurobiological conditions of thinking. As far as writing is concerned, and from my personal perspective, it is certain that the times of creating a text by handwriting are gone. We no longer have an alternative but to type a text; this alternative was lost with the habit of typing a text. Moreover, only my reluctance to accept automated formulas stops me from making more use of computer tools to assist my writing. It would be an exaggeration to say that I no longer write by hand. Still, it is in large part secondary and auxiliary, or aestheticized, and depends on the context. The text thus assumes the properties of an image, which carries broader information than its digitally coded form. Until recently, under the influence of the semiotic theory, one commonly spoke about the ‘reading of images’. Art theory taught us that it is wrong to say that we ‘read’ images; rather we observe, contemplate, and possibly describe them. Now, it seems written texts should be regarded in the same way.

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