I was first introduced to the idea that writing is technology as an undergraduate studying linguistics. It was hard to wrap my brain around the concept at first – I guess I had always taken reading and writing for granted. People read and write, right? My world has always been filled with various forms of the written word. For that matter, my world has always been full of technology – technology that I have, for the most part, taken for granted. The only time I really took notice of technology was when it wasn’t available to me – my neighborhood was one of the last in the area to be wired for cable television, and my parents waited so long to buy a VCR I thought my head would explode. To think about writing as a technology is to consider this common practice from an entirely different angle.
As Dennis Baron reminds us, the earliest instances of writing were not records of conversation but of business transactions. Writing then, it seems, is a technology invented by those with property as a means of memorializing and protecting their interests. While literacy has become much more common since those first scratchings, it remains a tool of the privileged. The language of the dominant group is always the most valuable literacy in our increasingly globalized community. Those with the means to access the technology of literacy have greater access to power and control in their lives and their communities. Writing, like other technologies, is a commodity.
Those with access to writing technologies by default gain access to broader, more complex ways of thinking, as Reid tells us. Though Plato denounces the written word for it’s inability to answer interrogation, it is the written word itself which allows us to so thoroughly interrogate discourse. As Reid says,”it is our ability to store and process information in spaces outside our body that allows us to engage in the complex thoughts on which consciousness is founded” (p.25). Had Plato not immortalized his thoughts in writing, we would be unable today to consider his views. Had the Canterbury Tales remained as stories transmitted only by speech, scholars would not have been able to build entire careers around their analysis.
I find myself uncertain of what it is I am getting at here. There is a tension present in this notion of writing as technology. Language expressed orally seems to have as its primary purpose interpersonal communication. People within the same community likely speak the same language – language unites them and allows them to share. Spoken language is available to almost everyone. The ability to write is harder won. As Baron points out, the first technologies of writing were costly, available only to a few. In our increasingly digital world the same holds true. Written language can leave behind those without access to the current technology, diminishing their power and control. Writing can be a great joy, a means of opening the mind to wonderful new worlds. It can also be the barrier to those worlds and to crucial aspects of our world. Writing can help you or hinder you, depending on your access to technology.