Two important points emerge from these snippets from the history of reflection on writing technologies. First, writing technologies do not by themselves appear to compel us to write or think in one way or another. It seems at least possible to express the same general thoughts with a pen, typewriter, or word processor.
Second, and at the same time, these technologies do have some influence on our writing and thinking. Writing technologies appear to incline certain styles, disincline others, lean authors toward more or less reflectivity, and supply both conveniences and inconveniences. As Nietzsche said, "Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts."
So discussions of how our method of writing affects our writing are nothing new. As we begin to think about how a future of dictated writing will look, we should keep in mind that dictation is nothing new either, and we can look to the past for evidence about what dictated writing will be like. For example, Milton was blind by the time he
wrote Paradise Lost and is said to have composed the entire epic through dictation. A discussion has emerged over the
later writing of Henry James, incited by the expansive biographical work of Leon Edel, about whether changes in James' style are
attributable to a move to dictation. And Amy Rowland has recently argued -- based on her own experience taking dictation for
journalists and also on accounts of historical figures such as Dostoevsky's "collaborator" (and, later, wife) Anna Grigorievna -- that there are substantial
differences between a responsive human transcriptionist and automated dictation software. Rowland claims, "past authors have dictated to humans and their
corporeal responses have contributed to aesthetic production, if in untraceable ways."
The recently released first volume of the "complete and authoritative" Autobiography of Mark Twain provides a rich example. Twain eschewed the conventional autobiographical format of simply recounting major events in more or less the order in which
they occurred in life, and he instead jumped from story to story, entertaining each only so long as it held his attention. He argued that this would lead
to a fresher and more truthful portrait. And he found that traditional writing with pen and paper did not lend itself to his preferred autobiographical
form, explaining that, "With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except
that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gate and style and movement are not suited to narrative." It's striking just how
opposite Twain is to Heidegger here. For Twain, the truthfulness and authenticity of an autobiographical account would actually be hindered by the
formality and lingering pace of handwriting. He took to speaking his stories to transcriptionists, claiming, "One would expect dictated stuff to read like
an impromptu speech -- brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn't come till
the speech was done -- but it isn't so." However, some critics have pointed to this unfocused,
meandering, and perhaps self-indulgent style as exactly the central drawback of the work.