What do you think of when I say “new technology”? If you’re like most people, you look to the cutting edge—genetics, nanotechnology, new medicines, or electric cars. But all the technologies we take for granted were once new, too. There are some we’ve taken for granted so long that we don’t even think of them as technology.
Writing is one of our oldest and most powerful technologies. Even the internet hasn’t expanded our communication ability so dramatically. Without writing, we learn only from face-to-face conversation, and remember only part of what we learn. With writing, we can communicate across space and time—speaking to people in another part of the world, or who haven’t been born yet. We can “remember” things we scribbled down once, or things we never knew: your newspaper and your book shelf are external hard drives for your brain.
Like any other tool, writing changes the way we think. Worried about the effects of Twitter on face-to-face communication? A letter is just as bad. Concerned that students look up answers on Google rather than taking the time to study? Psychologists have found that literacy is far worse for your memory.
In a culture without writing-based prosthetic memory, people put a great deal of time and effort into internal tools: mnemonics and other tricks for preserving recollection. Epic poetry and oral storytelling traditions flourish. Memory can become an art in itself: in medieval Europe, people created elaborate memory palaces to hold information both sacred and secular.
When writing first enters the picture, it’s used as a supplement to these techniques. Crops can be more dependably tallied, while scribes record generations-old stories—and in the process, codified them in their current forms. As literacy becomes more common, societies begin to explore art forms that depend on it. The modern novel is very different from an epic poem. The revision and editing processes open up of all manner of possible elaborations and experiments. As an author of my acquaintance is fond of saying, writing is not a performance art.
Today’s new communication technologies only build on these original breakthroughs. The web spawns both impressive hypertext epics and 140-character microfiction, but neither is quite the world-shaking breakthrough that led to Gilgamesh.
– Ruthanna Gordon