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There are times when an idea pops into your head and immediately you need to write it down or lose the thought forever. What is the first thing you grab? Probably a pen or pencil and then a piece of paper, or even the nearest keyboard. These technologies are so common, we don't even give them a second thought; they are just there. With almost every household owning a computer we even tend to take them for granted. Now imagine these writing technologies didn't exist and that Henry Thoreau's father didn't perfect the pencil, what would you grab then? This is what I set out to do; find a writing technology that isn't common today.
At first, I thought about what our ancestors would have used and depending on how far back we go, this can range from a quill and ink to carving on stone. Looking around my house though, these things weren't easy to find. So, I searched thru the yard looking for anything that might resemble paper. I kept coming back to the leaves hanging on the catalpa tree. I first decided this had to be my paper. It was the closest thing to being flat and the leaves were large enough for my text.
For my pen I tried many different tools. First, the obvious, I could use a stick. Then I decided to cut some of the needles off my pine tree and use them. With these I twisted them tight and then tied them with Cattail reeds from the pond. Just from the looks alone, I knew this had to be my pen.
My ink was a challenge though. First, I tried to burn the tip of the "pen" in order to produce ash. I figured this would be easy and would work in the same manner as a pencil. After much burning, my porch smelled like a pine forest, but little ash was being produced. This led to another search of the yard and the discovery of my ink. I had found some wild grapes and knew this would be an easy substitute for ink.
Once the grapes were crushed and the neighbor's questions answered, I preceded with my new technology experiment. By burning the tip of my "pen" I had formed a perfect point to write with. This was out of pure accident, but none the less a stroke of luck.
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This experiment brings us back to the relationship between writing and technology. The way we write and how we write is connected to this relationship. If we had to sit for hours to write a simple letter home, then we probably wouldn't send many correspondents. Instead, today, email allows us to zip a letter off to mom and dad during a commercial. Convenience is what makes a writing technology successful. In the modern world we are surrounded by cell phones, cable, and internet; this means our writing technologies need to keep up with our lives.
Obviously, my new writing technology would not be very useful in today's world. First, it would require to be handwritten on and with the age of computers among us this would seem more of a lost art; as many feel handwriting has become. Naomi Baron states, "handwriting is no longer taken as a necessary alternative to print but rather a begrudged substitute" (Baron 60). Most people, today, run to the computer to do most of their work. This ranges from balancing our checkbooks to chatting with friends thousands of miles away. This affects our way of writing with many aspects. We no longer have to be good spellers, Spell Check has that covered for us. We don't have to worry about our handwriting and hope the receiver is able to read it, everyone has the same text. We can edit by simply selecting, then cutting and pasting. This is our writing technology of today. Bill Gates didn't set out to create a new writing technology, he wanted to improve math skills, but like Thoreau, he designed them for a living.
My technology would also take too much time for people of today. If I was to use this during the times of the quill and ink then it might not seem to tedious, since we would already be waiting for the ink to dry anyway. Today, though, writing is at our fingertips and it is just a matter of keeping our thoughts caught up with our typing. This also is another way computers have affected our way of writing. As Dennis Baron points out we keep looking for "the next software update, cheaper RAM, faster chips, and the latest in connectivity." (Baron 36) We no longer expect writing to be time consuming, the faster the better. We have authors who turn out book after book due to the easiness of computers, this was proven with J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. Would she have been such a success if we would have had to wait years for the next installment?
This also brings to question what the next writing technology will be. With computers constantly being upgraded our writing technology will need to be also. There is now software available that is voice activated. Granted it is not perfected yet, you need to put periods and space in your speech, but as Dennis Baron stated, "As costs decrease and the technology becomes better able to mimic more ordinary or familiar communications, a new literacy spreads across a population." (Baron 37) This could be the next step in the relationship between writing and technology. Once this new technology takes hold and becomes as common as a computer mouse we will no longer even need to write. This will allow us to simply speak into a mouth piece and have all of our thoughts and ideas put down on paper for us. Writing will no longer be necessary, unless you are not near a PC at the time. Of course, they could by then, also come up with simple recorders that allow us to record our thoughts while away from our PC that would simply require us to plug them in once we return home. This is very similar to Plato's thoughts of everything being better when communicated orally, only we would be communicating with our computer over others. The computer would then only serve as a storage space for our thoughts.
This is why our writing is tied to technology. Technology allows our writing skills to improve and at the same time forces them to change in order to keep up with the lifestyles of the time. As time goes by, things will only get faster and in order for some things to survive they will have no choice but to improve themselves. This means writing will constantly be changing and there will always be new technologies coming while old ones die out. The pencil will soon be looked at as a instrument from the past that has no place in the future and will only be found in museum displays, along side the typewriter and whiteout.
Evelyn Tribble, and Anne Trubek, eds. Writing Material Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. New York: Longman, 2003.
Baron, Dennis. From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy. Tribble and Trubek 35-53.
Baron, Naomi. The Art and Science of Handwriting. Tribble and Trubek 54-61.