What does it mean “to write” in a digital age? This was an interesting week for thinking about this question. We are in transition between old ways of communicating by text, with historical ideas and forms and methods of publishing, and communicating by tweets and Facebook updates, on Google+ or Linked In.
This week’s addition to the “Technology is Destroying Civilization As We Know It” canon comes in the form of an article on the death of cursive handwriting, especially among teen idols but with warnings for all young Americans who, it seems, will not only be writing like children in a generation but whose very emotions (no more love letters on scented stationery!), intellect (no more connection of fluid script to flowing ideas), and brain power is being damaged by no longer being able to write longhand. Sigh. Is there really something about conjoined letters that is affectively and cognitively superior to printed ones, each letter discrete and separate? The greatest, most intellectually consistent and refined language in the world, many linguists say, is Hangul, the Korean system developed in the 15th century by the edict of King Sejong the Great, that conjoins phonemes and syllables--but in discrete, individual characters. No connection. Of course there is also exquisite Korean calligraphy but its beauty lies in the negative spaces between the characters. No love letters in Korean? No fluidity? Stunted brains? It's just plain ridiculous, when you know a little bit about the global history of hands and writing. (O, my, how I hate arguments for universality that are actually highly temporal, culture-bound.) Blame Justin Bieber’s childish handwriting (and that of your deficient child too!) on the Internet. I don’t think so. It is obviously the case that penmanship is changing but that's always the case. Anyone looking can tell 2011 handwriting in English from 1911, 1811, 1711, and so forth. I'm really not a fan of the hell-in-a-handbasket version of history. But if you want to read what others say, and see examples of printing by Miley and Justin, here’s the url: http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/08/10/handwriting.horror/index.html?iref=NS1
How fast do you write? Michael Agger, on Slate, has written a delightful piece on the different writing speeds of different writers. Christopher Hitchens can famously turn out a Slate column in twenty minutes, William F. Buckley liked to pen his reviews in a taxi crossing town, and, my favorite, Trollope had special notebook paper subdivided into 250-word segments that he would fill up in fifteen minutes, timing himself to make sure he kept up that pace. (I was once at a dinner party with Joyce Carol Oates, where she said she was thinking she had to get rid of her computer because it made her “write too fast.” Whoa!) Now, I confess to being on the Hitchens/Buckley/Trollope/Oates continuum when I’m writing at what Agger calls “not a perfect draft, but publish-it-on-your-blog good.” Way back in grad school, in the distant 20th century when all the grad students had to write their general exams in one big room for eight hours, my fellow grad students begged to have me put outside to write because it was making them nervous as blue books flew from my deskchair. My profs complied with that request for the second round, the specializations, and let me write in a room by myself—on condition that I type. (See Cursive above: I write very fast and cursively but no one, including me, has ever been able to read it. My dad calls to have me decipher the birthday cards I send him. “It says, ‘happy birthday, Dad,’” I’ll say). I'm fast. I wake up most mornings with this insatiable desire to pound out 800 or 1000 words (yes, I know that's too long but writing flabby comes with the speedy territory). But. . . I get my comeuppance when it comes time to write polished, succinct, lucid book-length prose. I revise, I re-revise, I re-re-re-revise, over and over and over and over. I cut, I add, I cut again. All the freeflowing blistering prose that you folks see, typos and all, on HASTAC every day comes to a snail’s pace as I move the clause here and there and back again before deleting the whole thing. Writing comes in many speeds, in many forms, for many people. Some of them fast, some of them slow. (Agger laments, "My old enemy, self-regulation. We meet again." I hear you, Mr. Agger. Sometimes.) If you’ve ever thought about it at all, you’ll enjoy Agger’s lovely essay here: http://www.slate.com/id/2301243/
I admit that there is almost nothing about contemporary publishing that I understand, and that’s a pretty funny thing for me to say since I write a lot about contemporary publishing. The transitions between formal publishing in printed books, and electronic downloads, and all the other ways we now communicate on Facebook or blogs or Twitter or Google+ or Linked in and on and on make certain conventions such as publication dates seem bizarre to me and yet not. To wit: last week I received the audio book versions for Now You See It this week and the MP3 version comes on a CD. I didn’t even realize there were cd’s of MP3s! Then, on Monday I was fortunate to experience one of the great thrills in the life of a writer: the brilliant, witty Virginia Heffernan, one of my favorite technology writers, wrote a rave review of my “galvanic” book (here it is: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/education-needs-a-digital-age-upgrade/) Fantastic. The review made my heart soar and made the Amazon number for Now You See It soar too, to #23 (#1 in education, #1 in health and psychology, #5 in business: doesn’t get much better than that). I took a screen shot. But I could tell my publisher was a bit dismayed that it came out before the August 18 launch date of my book. What does that mean? I know on that magical date the books will automatically go out from Amazon, Kindles will swell with downloads of Now You See It, and every bookstore in the land (of course) will be displaying the actual, physical book in its window even as blogs by moi appear online in Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review , and radios will be full of my prerecorded (and some live) interviews and blogs to will be sending those out over the internets. Count down. Even my agent says, “Tell your friends to buy the book on August 18.” Apparently even the New York Times counts bestsellers on that exact date. Why? What is the point in a "drop date" in the digital age? I keep asking the question and getting vague reasons but utterly unshakable directives. That's the way it is. Period. So, okay, kids: let’s all buy the book on August 18. (info below).
So that’s it, three allegories of writing in a digital age. Cursive, fast, timely. And a lot of confusions, stutterings, mutterings along the way.
Have a great weekend, HASTAC friends!
NOW YOU SEE IT LAUNCHES: AUGUST 18, 2011
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season. In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . . One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."