Computers, and the electronic writing they have enabled, significantly alter traditional conceptions of writing. The effects of electronic writing on traditional text call for a re-examination of the prevailing print metaphor for online writing.
A brief historical overview can help us better understand the effects of computers on traditional writing. The three great communication revolutions — symbolic language, writing, and print — have led to the current revolution of computers and electronic technologies.
The development of symbolic language parallels the development of human society and culture. The ability to communicate orally, using symbols to convey both concrete and abstract information, distinguishes the human race. Yet, before the development of a means to record language, communication was limited by individual capacities for memory and cognition. Theorists such as Walter Ong (1977, 1982) and Eric Havelock (1986) have detailed the cognitive and expressive characteristics of spoken language. Oral discourse relies on sound, which is evanescent, having meaning only when it is going out of existence. This evanescence of sound is what gives rise to the cognitive and expressive characteristics that distinguish “orality” (evident in those cultures lacking written language). While such characteristics include the important capacity for abstract thought, other characteristics stemming from the nature of the speaker are more limiting. For example, oral language is limited by the memory of the individual, leading to an emphasis on formulas and mnemonic structures. For the same reason, oral language is additive rather than subordinative, aggregative rather than analytic, redundant, and conservative. It is close to the ‘human life world,’ (a phrase used by Ong to denote the physical world as experienced by humans, rather than abstract thought) in its content, and agonistic in tone.
Although symbolic language enabled a significant number of human achievements, it was not until humans developed a means to record language that human society could really expand and grow. Prior to the invention of a recording system, societies were limited by the number of people who could be assembled to hear the spoken word (Schmandt-Besserat, 1986). Writing enabled societies not only to expand, but also to communicate across the boundaries of space and time. Of equal importance are the cognitive and expressive consequences of chirography (handwriting) (Ong, 1967, 1982). Although writing builds on the symbolic and rule-based systems of oral language, it requires knowledge of an alphabetic (or pictographic) symbol system, and of chirography. With the developments of literate skills come cognitive and expressive (language-use) changes such as detachment. Writing encourages abstract and analytic thought: Since the writer and artifact are different, detachment is highlighted and self-consciousness is more pronounced. The durability of written language removes the necessity for mnemonic characteristics of oral language; people can refer back to written text and are not constrained to organize it in ways that encourage memory (such as setting content to songs or chants). The lack of presence of the other is compensated for by textual cues like punctuation, and by recognized conventions of grammar and usage that help the reader understand who is being spoken about, for instance. In addition, writing’s immobilization of meaning on paper allows re-reading or “backward scanning” (Goody, 1977, cited in Ong, 1982, p. 100). The reader can review the ideas presented to better understand them in terms of the author’s point.
Written expression differs from oral expression in that it is dependent entirely on the alphabetic word — and not on the visual and vocal elements that help people communicate in face-to-face speech. Writing requires a codifiable medium to convey meaning. Also, it uses a vocabulary, based on known conventions and rules of usage, to create new ideas. In written expression, discrete elements (the alphabet) are combined and recombined to help convey new ideas, often using new words created to meet the needs of conveying those new ideas. Finally, written language must have a fixed relationship with spoken language, so that people can communicate the same thought in two different media simultaneously — as in reading to one another. These elements give writing its characteristics of permanence and completeness. As opposed to the transience of spoken language, writing has a lasting, permanent quality about it. Written language is less redundant, more planned. Meaning and shades of meaning are conveyed by carefully chosen and placed words. Meaning may be modified by deleting, editing, and otherwise changing the written words, unlike oral language, where once words are said out loud, they cannot be unsaid, only explained. Sequentiality, like the subject-verb-object sequence in English, is important in writing; spoken language is often understood even when the structure of the sentence is fractured. In written language, the presence of the receiver is not required, and the constraints of time and space are removed. Given these factors, writing can be more analytical than oral communication.
With the mechanization of writing, the characteristics of written language were refined and expanded. The invention of print led not only to the expansion of literacy, but to the gradual development of a number of factors with profound cognitive and expressive impacts. Print concretized the permanence of writing. Until the printing press, writing was fragile, with its permanence dependent on the preservation of an often single piece of parchment or reed (Eisenstein, 1983). Print introduced durability and multiple copies, and “embedded the word in (visual) space more definitively” (Ong 1982, p. 123). It also introduced hierarchies, which in turn introduced lists and indexes. The development of print was significant in that it reinforced the linearity and sequentiality of writing while focusing on the hierarchical thinking that was essential to the eventual flowering of modern science. The permanent nature of print also led to the preservation of language. The mass dissemination of printed texts meant both fixity and standardization of content (Eisentsein, 1983).
Print arrested linguistic drift, standardized language, and eventually led to the deliberate codification of written language. The proliferation of printed texts also led to the establishment of research and the development of the scientific method. The analytic element introduced by writing was reinforced by print, with a corresponding focus on logic. Increased availability and affordability of printed texts enabled the development of the modern educational system, where the student can conduct inquiry into a body of knowledge rather than rely solely on the knowledge of one teacher (Eisenstein, 1983).
Print also played a significant role in the development of the modern sense of personal privacy and private ownership. As books became portable and affordable, reading became a solitary rather than a social activity (Ong, 1982), and people wanted to own the books they were reading in private. The printing press laid the foundation for today’s models of commercial writing, introducing the concepts of ownership and mass publication. The numerous and important effects of the printing press are thought by many to have led directly to the industrial and electronic age that produced the computer.
The Impact of Computers on Traditional Writing
The computer, developed in the mid-twentieth century, is undeniably a product of a literate and technological society. Prominent scholars like Bolter (1996), Heim (1987), and Ong (1982) consider computers to be late developments of the print age. Yet to consider computers merely an extension of the printed page is to ignore their unique nature (Ferris & Montgomery, 1996; Langston, 1986). Electronic writing is a singular product of the computer age, and the electronic writing enabled by computers has affected traditional writing significantly.