Writing Technologies

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The Pixels Are on The Interface, But What Do They Mean?

Will Slocombe

Let me state an obvious yet important premise: writing is intimately connected to technology. Narrative is possible without technology, for it can exist in oral form; one can as easily imagine a story being told around a campfire today as from the beginnings of human civilisation. In contrast, writing and, by extension, the varied and difficult field we have come to know as ‘literature’ can only exist where there is technology. Without technology, writing is merely lines in the sand, glowing symbols in the air, vanishing almost as soon as they are produced. From the first time a symbol was carved in stone, carved into wood, or drawn on a cave wall with the first rudimentary tools, literature was the inevitable product, a sign not of permanence (what sign is ever permanent?) but at least of endurance. It was the first step along the path, the first link in the chain. From these earliest marks on stone and on parchment to illuminated manuscripts, from these to the printing press, and from there to the more recent emergence of hypertexts and, more debatably, computer games narratives, technology has always played a major role in what ‘writing’ is.

The above paragraph of course implies a clear distinction between nature and technology; technology stands apart from nature as a means of preserving our narratives from the decay of time. To some, however, it has perhaps stifled narrative, codifying ‘literary’ forms and restricting the organic evolution of stories. To such critics, perhaps, we disappointingly no longer recount vast epics of our communal pasts, no longer bond as a ‘tribe’. I certainly see the logic that the gradual evolution of oral narratives has been lost as we set down such tales in a more enduring form, although I would disagree with such claims more generally. One need only see the vast amount of writing done over the internet to see the endurance of this shared story-making. From blogs to MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), from phenomena such as vlogospheres (video-blog communities) to projects such as Novel Twists, 1 technology enables us to ‘write ourselves’ into a much larger tribe, to share our writing with others on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Equally, it gives us unprecedented control over that writing, and opens up the possibility of engaging at a much deeper level with another’s writing.

This is not to suggest, however, that technology always has a positive influence on writing. This is emphatically not the case. Rather, technologies change the way we write, and the ways in which we think about writing. For instance, although there is a demonstrable development from the printing press to hypertext (they are both aspects of ‘technologizing the word’, as Ong suggests), is there a more persuasive link to be made between illuminated manuscripts and hypertexts, with images, texts, and glosses all available on the same ‘page’? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then our paradigm for understanding how textuality differs from hypertextuality must account for this. (See Tolva’s ‘The Heresy of Hypertext’ for an interesting contribution to these debates). 2 Furthermore, it is important to understand precisely what a ‘digital environment’ is and how it affects the production and reception of texts, as well as the way in which key concepts in textual studies must be renegotiated to account for technological changes. It is for these reasons that we must examine the relationship between technology and writing through three key areas: authors and readers, editing and editions, and narrative structure.

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1. Novel Twists [accessed 22 February 2007].

2. John Tolva, 'The Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print' [accessed 22 February 2007]. Also available here [accessed 22 February 2007].

  There Are Pixels on The Interface, But What Do They mean?