|The history of writing is as old as humanity’s own history, inasmuch as what came before writing is commonly referred to as pre-history. From simple book-keeping tokens through the chiselled epic saga of kings and inked poetry of the common person, through the typed history and electronic messages, the written word has never stayed still.We are not at the summit of history, we are merely on the ascent through unstoppable time. The beautifully anti-aliased text on our LED screens, only yesterday replacing vacuum tubes, is not the pinnacle of the written word, it is only the most illuminated, the most blindingly fresh and new, at least to our contemporary eyes.
A picture can take a thousand words to render but some words there are no pictures for. No music. Nothing else has the compactness, clarity and illuminating power of the written word. Love, Hate, Understanding, Distrust, Compassion, Fear, Knowledge – all can be the painters and the musicians muse but simple words encapsulate them like nothing else.
Reading and writing is not an innate, ‘natural’ skill like enjoying a song or a beautiful scene. Reading is a learned process where years of practice and study pay off with explosive insight and powers of communication every time it is used.
There is a tangential problem with the fact that reading and writing is a studied skill and that is that we think we know what reading and writing and words are – since we have spent so much time and effort learning how to use them. We are all experts. We derive great benefit from the time and effort we have invested – so why should we question what the written word is and how we can use it – how we can interact with it?
We should, because we are not at the end of history.
Did the ancient Sumerian wonder if his marks of bales of hay could one day express his love? Did the quilled poet long for the day of electronic internet publishing? It would be beyond the powers of their imagination, it would be beyond any perspective they might generate. But all the innovations up til now happened. They happened in concert and co-evolution with the technology around them.
But now we are at a completely different stage of history. The history of the written word will now be written in software. Instead of a clear technological step forward, such as mans capacity to make sharp metal moulds which could reproduce printed text clearer, faster and over more copies than wood block printing, the innovation from now on in rests mostly in the imagination of the designers of text systems.
This is an arbitrary, slightly absurd, a little frightening but mostly incredible opportunity for improving the way we work through text to learn, think and communicate.
When Doug Engelbart demonstrated interactive text in 1968 he not only showed the world the ability to type and re-type, to edit to your heart’s content, but also how to express connections through links and so much more. Since then computers have increased in their capacity to process and store information many million fold.
The innovations we have seen since then are pitiful and lacking. It’s crucial that we exert serious effort to push the written word further along so that it may help us along in turn:
Words are recorded symbols, symbols through which we think and communicate. How flexibly and powerfully we interact with our symbols is how flexibly and powerfully we interact with our thoughts and those of others.
Interactive text then goes to the very foundation of knowledge work and what is more important than improving the way we work with our knowledge?
In the beginning was the word. There is still a long way to go….