Computers + Writing

| July 2, 2011

Writing and alphabetic systems have always been shaped by the tools and materials in the environment. The materiality of clay and reeds influenced the development of the ancient alphabet cuneiform; the writing system was comprised of five different wedge shapes, which were the types of impressions the reeds made in the clay. (The word “cuneiform” actually means “wedge-shaped”). Other writing surfaces and communication modes have historically included wax, bones, and tortoise shells. Conklin’s anthropological work in Southeast Asia (1949) explored the communication systems of indigenous people; on Mindoro, for instance, there was a communication system involving carved notches on bamboo sticks. This was one of the earliest challenges to the binary classification of societies as literate vs. nonliterate. Smoke signals—the manipulation of fire for visual communication across distances–is also arguably an alphabet, a form of literacy. Writing systems have always developed in conjunction with writing instruments and surfaces.

Currently, there has been a tectonic shift in digital communications in the last ten years. There are estimates that 2.5 billion text messages are sent daily in the U.S. and 247 billion e-mails are sent daily in the world. One interesting aspect about computers as a tool is that one sits at a computer in the posture and position of a writer. The inherent position of using a laptop places your hands at a keyboard, with full command of the Roman alphabet. I imagine that if alien life forms ever discovered the discarded artifacts and shells of our extinct civilization, their first assumption as to the use of computers would be that they were writing devices.

For a class this past semester, I had to write a literature review on experimental, quantitative studies all focused on the same topic. I looked at how 1:1 laptop programs impacted academic achievement (as measured through standardized tests), and read through twenty or thirty different studies. A consistent theme throughout these studies was that 1:1 laptops do not effect or improve academic test results; they did not produce gains in math or science. However, there were consistent gains in writing scores from the experimental or laptop groups, found in several different studies.

A question I have is: why do laptops improve writing scores? The obvious response would be: when people are using laptops, they are writing more, and this will improve writing. But: why are they writing more? Is this simply the facility of having the hands always at the keyboard; the relative ease of typing vs. the diligence of writing in the days of yore with quill pens and inkwells? Is it having more engaging writing spaces, such as fanfiction sites or message boards? Do online social dimensions increase motivation for writing, such as status updates, emails, or instant messaging? Or maybe writing gains have less to do with increased output, and more to do with the mechanics of writing on a computer, such as: the ability to easily edit and re-arrange words, thoughts, paragraphs; or the tools available on a computer that are able to augment and externalize cognitive tasks, such as spellcheck and encyclopedia databases. These are just some questions/thoughts I have, but it’s fascinating to think about the “explosion of writing” we are undergoing (Luke, 2007), and how that is shaping language and literacy practices.