Does the 'information age' encourage or discourage writing ability?
Writing and new technology
Walk down any main street in Australia and chances are you will see someone sending a text message on their mobile telephone. People are messaging each other in school, in restaurants, on the bus; some even manage to fit it in while crashing their car. When we get home we rush straight to the computer to check our email. The postie, it seems, has been relegated to the delivery of bills and physical items that no-one has as yet figured out how to send across the internet. The information age is upon us and, like it or not, we are required to adapt to the new technologies. But has the convenience that modern communication brings come at a price? Some believe that the information age has had a detrimental affect on the writing ability of those who use it. Others may believe that it has actually enhanced it. The answer may not be as clearly defined as the supporters of each line of argument would have us believe.
Anyone wanting to discuss the topic of this essay must first clearly define what is meant by the term ‘writing ability’. Does it refer to the ability to write, that is, the physical act of writing, or does it mean the quality of what is actually produced? Both aspects are worthy of consideration and are more closely related than you might first think. For example, the knowledge that has come from emerging communication technologies has proven to be greatly beneficial to many people with disabilities. Writers unable to use their arms, such as May Cox Bilz (also an accomplished mouth-artist), can use a mouth stick and a keyboard to produce works that would otherwise have been impossible. People such as Mary have now been given the ability to write and to contribute to the world of literature without having to rely on someone to write for them. The information age has not reduced the ability to write, it has provided it.
Writing is some thing that has evolved over a very long time. It began as a collection of symbols that represented real life occurrences, morphed into systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs, and eventually became the alphabet system we are familiar with today. Although there was no distinct break between the different systems, each would have appeared as a major breakthrough for the people using them. Writers were able to capture and record more information; much of this early material was for administrative, commercial and religious purposes; and eventually, scholarly works began to appear as well. The media used to record this information has evolved along with the writing itself; Clay tablets, engravings in stone, animal skins, parchments, right up to the books and computers used to write this essay. As the writing became more complex, better ways to record it needed to be found. As the media improved, the writing could go that one step further. What we write and how we write has always been dependant on the available technology to record it.
In the 19th century, communication was revolutionised by the invention, and the gradual implementation, of the telegraph system. Messages were transmitted by Morse Code, a code consisting of a series of short and long electrical impulses. Cost was a major factor in sending messages, customers paid by the word. This meant that messages were formed at the expense of good grammar and, occasionally, readability. Although this medium was widely used for many years, there does not appear to have been a decline in the standard of writing as a result. It did, however, introduce the concept of altering the way language is written to take advantage of emerging technology.
In some ways, this experience is reflected in today’s use of text messaging on mobile telephones. It is a quick and simple system that allows text messages, formed by pressing the buttons on the keypad, to be passed from telephone to telephone. The busy lifestyles, and considerable impatience, of the users mean that short cuts are taken wherever possible. Messages are often formed using phonetic spelling and substitutions such as ‘r’ for ‘are’ and ‘u’ for ‘you’.
Electronic mail, or email, is now commonly used as an informal method for people who wish to communicate quickly or keep in touch with friends and more and more for business. It is cheap and relatively easy to access by a broad section of the community and carries the same text functionality as standard word processing systems. Despite this, the same short cuts being used in text messaging are used in emails. Initialisations such as ‘LOL’ for ‘laugh out loud’ and symbols such as :) to express emotion are becoming more and more common. Their use is now so wide-spread that they have formed a new language in their own right. Current studies have shown that conventions such as these are finding their way into student’s academic work. This is a clear indication of the affect that the information age is having on the structure of modern writing.
Can we say, however, that the trends discussed above are having an adverse affect on the quality of modern writing? Earlier in this essay we saw that writing evolved as knowledge grew and the technology provided a way to express those changes. In the past few hundred years, we have seen the styles and conventions of official, historical and fictional writing alter significantly. Compare these with the cuneiform and hieroglyphs of ancient civilisations. Perhaps all we are seeing is the same phenomenon but at a greatly accelerated rate. Modern society is lived at breakneck speed and people will find ways to speed up their informal communications with each other. Despite this, we still have editors to keep out the smiley faces.
As is often the case there are two ways of looking at this question. Technology has always been closely associated with the ability to write, that is, being able to record your message, what ever it is, for people to read later. It has provided the means for the art of writing to progress and become inclusive rather than exclusive. The information age has not degraded people’s ability to write. On the contrary, it has greatly increased the participation rate. The question of whether the standard of writing has suffered as a result is a different issue. Many would claim that language is in a period of decay; my belief is that it is evolving as it has for countless years. We should be careful not to confuse people taking shortcuts with attacks on the standard of writing and trust in the writer’s ability to separate informal and formal communication.