The Uses of Writing

Most of the people in my generation grew up reading a lot of books, either loving them or not, but expecting that reading and writing were important activities. When education experts called for a return to the basics and the Three R's, nobody could really argue.

The people of the next generation get to make their own decisions about reading. A great deal of information can be moved without writing these days. Can writing be replaced? We had to learn to find square roots by hand, but today it is hard to imagine a situation where it wouldn't make more sense to wait for a calculator. Is reading the same?

Florian Coulmas, in his 1989 book Writing Systems of the World (Blackwell, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA), lists several functions for writing, as distinct from the spoken word:

Though it may have begun with counting and labeling, writing has been regarded mostly as a substitute for speech. The uses listed above are ones that the spoken word couldn't handle, or didn't do in the same way, before sound recording and playback were widely available. An author wrote a book and expected it to be read; later, a recording might be made for the convenience of those who do not see well or who spend a lot of time on the road.

Certain contracts were required to be in writing, but that was at a time when there was no other way to preserve their terms. What if sound recording could have been used? What if it could be now? What if the teller of a tale could always have just gone direct-to-disc, without typewriter, press or distributor? Would writing have ever been necessary, or even desirable, and therefore, is it really necessary where people have microphones, speakers, and tiny, powerful computers? Or is writing like the slide rule? We needed it very much then, but we need it very little now.

Here are some of the reasons I can think of that make writing valuable even among the computer-literate:

I'm not ready to guess what effect the computer will have on literacy in general. It may be that learning to read is a lot easier and more rewarding now because of automation; or it may be that the games are so easy to get to that nobody will bother. All of our past and much of our present is being recorded in writing, and that material will continue to be available to some extent in the future. Even if only scholars read, they will have some ability to turn old books into media that can be understood by the public. But how many old writings will be saved, and which ones? It's frightening to think about the stuff we used to refer to on 5.25 inch floppies that we will never see again, just because the storage medium has changed. I would be very interested in hearing what you think the place and the worth of writing are. Write me at the address below -- or send me a .wav file!

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