Technologies of Thinking about Writing

We cannot lose sight of how reading is affected by the evolving – and quickening – technologies associated with the act of writing

By one of those odd coincidences that encourages the credulous to believe in fate, I was on my way to absorb The British Library’s summer exhibition “Writing: Making your Mark” when I happened on an advertisement for a new website called Blinkist. Promised “insights in 15 minutes”, readers are encouraged to believe they can “’get’ the key ideas from best-selling non-fiction distilled by experts into bitesize text and audio.”

You have to smile, as so often we do when people give up thinking for marketing. Leave aside the confusion of distillation with mastication, and maybe too the notion that “key” ideas can be better absorbed when diced for swifter swallowing. The larger irony is that a species that has worked so hard to blend thought into the processes of creation can be so brazen in processing wisdom into click-bait and believe this to be a mark of our progress.

So to The British Library, where the much more thoughtful curation of five millennia’s history of the technology of writing succeeds in conveying one fairly key idea: there are no limits to the human imagination in crafting the symbols and characters with which ideas are articulated, and in developing the technologies and media with which these ideas fly.

From cave paintings to emojis, from cuneiform to cursive script, humanity has taken up writing as an almost existential challenge: whether at the end of a quill or on a Fleet Street printing press, we bestow legacies and secure anchors for our souls.

Left hanging slightly in the exhibition were questions of absorption and adherence; are ideas easier to “get” in some proportion to the time or care that were taken in their articulation? Do the authors of hand-written manuscripts have more time to curate their thinking in the crafting of a gospel, or a history, or a business case, than do the tippety tappers on keyboards such as the one serving as midwife to this blog?

Perhaps more telling, in the context of an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking show, was the final section on “The Future of Writing”. Given the general focus of the exhibition – not on the what of the content, but the how of production, it was probably inevitable that the filmed talking heads would muse on “more of the same, but better and more integrated”: more digital media, more pictorial and moving representations (and maybe many more bite-sized, mediating experts in their Blinkist finery.)

But the big question is surely not the one with which “Writing . . .” concludes: “How will the choices we make today affect the writing of tomorrow?” Given advances in Artificial Intelligence, the evolution of data and algorithmic manipulations of messaging and mind management, and the potential in neural implants and pharmacological and genetic tinkering, perhaps the bigger question will be:

How will the choices we make today affect the reading of tomorrow?