Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at writing on the internet.
“Should everybody write?” That’s the question to ask when looking at the cyberjunk permeating the World Wide Web.
The earlier technologies of the pen, the printing press, and the typewriter, all expanded the authors club, whose members create text rather than just copying it. The computer has expanded opportunities for writers too, only faster, and in greater numbers. More writers means more ideas, more to read. What could be more democratic? More energizing and liberating?
But some critics find the glut of internet prose obnoxious, scary, even dangerous. They see too many people, with too little talent, writing about too many things.
Throughout the 5,000 year history of writing, the privilege of authorship was limited to the few: the best, the brightest, the luckiest, those with the right connections. But now, thanks to the computer and the internet, anyone can be a writer: all you need is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.
The internet allows writers to bypass the usual quality-controls set by reviewers, editors and publishers. Today’s authors don’t even need a diploma from the Famous Writers School. And they don’t need to wait for motivation. Instead of staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper the way writers used to, all they need is a keyboard and right away, they’ve got something to say.
You may not like all that writing, but somebody does. Because the other thing the internet gives writers is readers, whether it’s a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FBFs, Tweeters, and subscribers to the blog feed. Apparently there are people online willing to read anything.
Previous writing technologies came in for much the same criticism as the internet: too many writers, too many bad ideas. Gutenberg began printing bibles in the 1450s, and by 1520 Martin Luther was objecting to the proliferation of books. Luther argued that readers need one good book to read repeatedly, not a lot of bad books to fill their heads with error. Each innovation in communication technology brought a new complaint. Henry David Thoreau, never at a loss for words, wrote that the telegraph – the 19th century’s internet – connected people who had nothing to say to one another. And Thomas Carlyle, a prolific writer himself, insisted that the explosion of reading matter made possible by the invention of the steam press in 1810 led to a sharp decline in the quality of what there was to read.
One way to keep good citizens and the faithful free from error and heresy is to limit who can write and what they can say. The road to publication has never been simple and direct. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI’s Bulla inter multiples required all printed works to be approved by a censor. During the English Renaissance, when literature flourished and even kings and queens wrote poetry, Shakespeare couldn’t put on a play without first getting a license. Censors were a kind of low-tech firewall, but just as there have always been censors, there have always been writers evading them and readers willing, or even anxious, to devour anything on the do-not-read list.
Today critics blame the internet for the low quality of much of its content. Most digital text is short and ephemeral. But so is most analog text: shopping lists, to-do lists, post-it notes, signatures, parking tickets, graffiti. More to the point, previous technologies of writing didn’t guarantee quality either. Despite the many obstacles to publication their authors had to overcome, there are plenty of clay tablets, manuscripts, printed books, mimeographed screeds and xeroxed memos that should never have seen the light of day. The computer may be responsible for the current explosion of text, but throughout the history of writing there has always been both too much to read, and a whole lot of stuff that no one wanted to read.
In the end, the question, Should everybody write? is moot, since everybody is already writing. The more interesting question to ask is this: How can we ensure that everyone continues to write? I for one am constantly looking for that next good thing to read, and more writers writing only increases the chances that I’ll find it, or that you will. As for the rest, well we can just ignore it. Because, like most technologies, text comes with an “off” button.
For a pdf of a more detailed version of this essay, click here: Should everybody write? The destabilizing technologies of communication.