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.
- 1. Mnemonic -- cultures have preserved huge amounts of history and legend through oral repetition, but the risk of loss or change is high.
- 2. Expanding communicative range -- before telecommunications, the only way to tell a large number of people something at more or less the same time was in print.
- 3. Extending temporal range -- not just on the scale of cultural preservation; can be as simple as leaving a note for the baby sitter.
- 4. Regulation of social conduct -- the letter of the law, getting it in writing. As Coulmas points out, there's no authority without authors.
- 5. Interactional -- akin to both #3 and #4 but distinct, a way of coordinating behavior. The example is a last will and testament, which speaks to a person, and at a time, neither of which is known with certainty at the moment the document is drafted.
- 6. Aesthetic -- illuminated texts, curling up with a good book, you name it. And see the discussion of calligraphy on my Arabic page.
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!
- An aid for the visually oriented. It may be just a bad habit of story-tellers who grew up with writing, but I for one like to be able to move words around on paper, even if I'm eventually going to read them aloud. The two-dimensional surface affords a means of organization. Furthermore, if pictures or other visual material will be displayed along with words, the audio solution loses some of its advantage.
- Communication across platforms. Computers of any kind will for some time lack the universality of writing instruments. Or maybe we should say that writing is both forward- and backward- compatible.
- Bifurcation of story-telling. The best author is not guaranteed to have the best voice, and if someone else is going to do the recording it's probably a good thing to be able to write the story down first.
- Elimination of error and ambiguity. An "oral" but audio-recorded contract could still be the repository of slurred speech and the verbal equivalent of the "typo." Besides, again, it's hard for us old-timers to imagine going through the rough draft.
- Standardization. One of the biggest problems with a writing system is how poorly it reflects actual speech -- but this is also a tremendous advantage. Two people who may have trouble understanding each other speak may nonetheless use substantially the same written language. At this point, translation software can handle text to some extent, but speech processing and translation is probably a good ways off.
- Time-shifting. I have little hope of understanding spoken French, but if it is written instead and I am given a dictionary and a lot of time I may be able to figure it out. For me there is a great potential for cross-cultural learning.