On Writing, Thinking, And Technology

by Conor Friedersdorf

In high school, I always hated "in class" essays: accustom to writing on a word processor, the different process of longhand composition always made me feel incapable of producing my best work, even if I adjusted capably enough to get a good grade.

Clive Thomson came up at a different time:

The funny thing is, cutting and pasting is now so routine that we often forget how strange it felt at first. I'm 42, old enough that I wrote my high-school essays -- and even the essays of my first year of college -- longhand on paper, then typed them up on a typewriter. The work of arranging and redacting my thoughts was done with a pencil and paper; the typewriter existed mostly just as a way to produce a good-looking final draft, though I'd occasionally buff or improve a sentence as I was typing it up. (Though I wouldn't edit too much; if my attempts to tweak the sentence while typing made things worse, I'd have to laboriously white out my screwed-up text with Liquid Paper, a substance beyond foul.)

When I first got my hands on a word processor, it felt absolutely uncanny: The words! They're ... they're moving around! THEY LOOK LIKE PRINTED WORDS BUT THEY'RE MOVING AROUND. But pretty quickly I grasped the new style of composition that was possible, and I loved it. Precisely as Englebart envisioned, I could write longer, more discursive drafts, letting my thoughts wander into ever-more-creative-or-weirder nooks, and taking arguments to their logical endpoint just to see where they'd lead. I could give myself mental permission to do this because it was easy to redact the best parts into my final essay. Robert Frost talked about how he couldn't tell what a poem was going to be about until he'd finished writing it. That's what word processors did to my academic and journalistic writing: As the mechanical act of writing became easier, it became easier to write prodigiously as a way of sussing out my own thoughts.

Elsewhere in the same post, Thompson notes that there are critics of word processors who believe that they hurt our ability to think. And you're doubtless familiar with the hand-wringing about the younger generation: that they'll grow up capable of texting and not much more. All interesting topics for debate, but what I'm wondering about this moment is whether advances in voice recognition software are going to bring about an age of dictation, or perhaps a world where writers, broadly construed, are divided, some preferring to type out their words while others prefer to speak them aloud.

Also, for readers who find themselves depressed and pessimistic about the future whenver this subject comes up, a bit of perspective. The passage that follows appeard in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1911:

The rising generation cannot spell, because it learned to read by the word-method; it is hampered in the use of dictionaries, because it never learned the alphabet; its English is slipshod and commonplace, because it does not know the sources and resources of its own language. Power over words cannot be had without some knowledge of the classics or much knowledge of the English Bible – but both are now quite out of fashion.