THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF WRITING
The writing tools of today are a far cry from the caveman’s stone. Think about how the innovation of clay tablets, the first portable writing artifact, altered the written record of human history. Now think about the modern-day communicative practices of texting, tweeting, and Snapchatting and the ways in which these and other digital technologies and formats are changing the way people communicate today. The tools we use to communicate affect how and what we communicate because the medium is an intrinsic part of the message. To better appreciate this truth, let’s take a quick look at the beginning of writing.
Around 8500 BC, clay tokens were introduced to make and record transactions between people trading goods and services, leading to the emergence of a sort of alphabet. A clay cone, for example, represented a small measure of grain. A sphere indicated a larger amount, while a cylinder signified the transaction of an animal. Notably, only humans traffic in symbols, creating them to make meaning. Thus, these few primitive symbols contributed to the genesis of writing by using abstract forms to communicate discrete human actions.
The alphabet we use today developed around 2000 BC when Jews in Egypt collected 27 hieroglyphs, assigning to each one a different sound of speech. This phonetic system evolved into the Phoenician alphabet that is called the “great-grandmother” of many Roman letters used today in roughly 100 languages worldwide (Sacks, 2003). At about the same time, around two millennia BC, papyrus and parchment were introduced as early forms of paper. The Romans wrote on papyrus with reed pens fashioned from the hollow stems of marsh grasses. It was this type of pen that evolved around 700 AD into the quill pen we imagine Shakespeare might have used nearly a millennium later. Although China had wood fiber paper in the second century AD, it would be the 15th century and the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg before paper became a widely used technology in Europe. From this brief history so far, it’s clear that what we think of as writing’s primary utility – communication through language – in actuality proved a relatively low priority for a long time. Low literacy rates also contributed to this slow development. Until Gutenberg, there was not much for the average person to read beyond inscriptions on buildings, coins, and monuments. When Gutenberg began printing books, scholars estimate there were only about 30,000 books in all of Europe. Fast forward only 50 years and Europe could count between 10 million and 12 million volumes, which fueled increases in literacy.
In 286 BC, Ptolemy I launched an ambitious project to archive all human knowledge, producing a library in Alexandria, Egypt, that housed hundreds of thousands of texts. None survive today. Invaders burned the papyrus scrolls and parchment volumes as furnace fuel in 681 AD. So, some of history’s lessons here with respect to writing should be obvious:
- Beware of invaders.
- Make a copy.
- Back up your data.
Although making copies of a work first occurred in Korea, Gutenberg gets most of the credit in histories of printing. In 1436, he invented a printing press with movable, replaceable wood letters. How much Gutenberg knew of the movable type that had been first invented in 11th-century China is not known; it is possible he “re-invented” it. Regardless, these innovations combined to create the printing process and led to the subsequent proliferation of printing and printed material. They also led to a codification of spelling and grammar rules, although centuries would be required to allow for agreement on most of these rules. In fact, we are still arguing because language is fluid, malleable, and negotiated. Consider the still vigorous debate about the Oxford comma.
It is also true that new communication technologies eliminate those that preceded them only very rarely, as Henry-Jean Martin pointed out in his The History and Power of Writing. Of all the mass media ever invented, only the telegraph is completely and utterly a thing of the past. Media often evolve, and in many cases they are replaced in terms of their primary purpose by newer technologies. Innovation also redistributes labor and can influence how we think. The early technologies of pen and paper, for example, facilitated written communication, which, like new communication technologies today, arrived amid great controversy. Plato and Socrates argued in the 4th and 5th centuries BC against the use of writing altogether. Socrates favored learning through face-to-face conversation, viewing writing as anonymous and impersonal. For his part, Plato feared that writing would destroy memory. Why make the effort to remember or, more correctly, to memorize something when it is already written down? (Why memorize a phone number when you can store it in your smartphone?) In Plato’s day, people could memorize tens of thousands of lines of poetry, a practice common into Shakespeare’s day in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Think, if for only a moment: What have you memorized lately? How many poems can you recite from memory? Lines from a play? Phone numbers and addresses?
Plato also believed that the writer’s ideas would be misunderstood in written form. When communication is spoken, the speaker is present to correct misunderstanding and has control over the message. If you have ever had an email or text misunderstood, or read by the wrong person, you might relate to these ancient concerns.
Another ancient Greek, Aristotle, became communication’s great hero by defending writing against its early detractors. In perhaps one of the earliest versions of the “if you can’t beat them, join them” argument, Aristotle argued that the best way to protect yourself and your ideas from the harmful effects of writing is to become a better writer yourself. Aristotle also saw the communicative potential of writing as a means to truth, so for him, writing was a skill everyone should learn. Because in writing it is truth that is at stake, Aristotle believed that honesty and clarity in writing are paramount. Like so much of what Aristotle believed (and wrote down!), such values are every bit as important and just as rare in the 21st century as they were in the 4th century.
Aristotle was also the first to articulate the notion of “audience,” a concept that has been variously defined ever since. He instructed rhetoricians to consider the audience before deciding on the message. This consideration perhaps more than any other distinguishes communication from expression for expression’s sake, a distinction perhaps best understood by comparing visual (or graphic) communication to art or journalism to literature.
While the development of printing proved a boon to education in many ways, perhaps the game changer was printing’s capacity to produce multiple copies of the same text. Readers separated by time and space could refer to the same information without waiting years for a scribe or monk to copy a fragile manuscript being diminished by time and use. Thus, we are always interested in the technologies of communication, and we are interested in them both for how they help us publish information and how that information gets disseminated, distributed, and shared. For example, with the advent of the printing press, books proliferated. In becoming accessible to growing swaths of an increasingly literate population, books changed the very priorities of communication. In other words, the technology of the book was important to its widespread use, technology that could be defined using the following attributes:
- Fixity: The information contained in a text is fixed by existing in many copies of the same static text.
- Discreteness: The text is experienced by itself, in isolation, separated from others. If there is a footnote in a book directing a reader to a reference or source material, the reader has to go get that source physically, expending time and perhaps money.
- Division of labor: The author or creator and the reader or audience perform distinctly different tasks, and the gulf between them cannot be crossed. The book is written, published, distributed, and then, in separate, discrete activities, bought or borrowed and read.
- Primacy for creativity and originality: The value set embodied by books does not include collaboration, community, or dialogue – values impossible in a medium that requires physical marks and symbols on physical (paper) surfaces.
- Linearity: Unless it is a reference book, the work is likely meant to be read from front to back, in sequence, one page at a time. After hundreds of years of familiarity with this linearity, non-linear forms have found it difficult to gain acceptance.
Compare the book’s fixed attributes to the raw materials of digital content: lines and lines and more lines of computer code, a source code that allows, say, webpages to be static or dynamic. Text might increase or decrease in size, switch typefaces and color, or even adjust according to geo-location information. In fact, web “pages” aren’t even pages; such terminology is purely metaphorical. What we are viewing on screen is more a picture or image of a page.
Digital spaces are also non-linear, so the sequence of content is manipulable, by both creator and viewer. Unlike a book, the web is scalable and navigable, a space we move through rather than a series of pages read in a particular, tech...