“Digital technology is turning out to be one of the more traumatic remediations in the history of Western writing.” J. David Bolter, 2001, p.24
I was struck by J. David Bolter’s (2001) casual mention of digital writing technology as a traumatic remediation of writing. This is certainly not Bolter’s only characterization of digital writing technology but nonetheless intriguing. I found myself wondering what was (or continues to be) particularly traumatizing about digital writing technology and why, if in fact we find such remediation traumatizing, do we continue to innovate and remediate? I agree that certain technologies have the ability to traumatize people. Take the introduction of civil aviation technology as remediation of long distance travel. Soaring through the air at ridiculous speeds wearing only a seatbelt is undoubtedly traumatizing. Another example is the invention of the syringe as remediation of intravenous injection and infusion technologies. The smallest needle and the best intentions do not seem to lessen the traumatizing effect of being stabbed. Such technologies may be deemed distressing but does digital writing fall into this category?
The invention of typography and printing en masse would have certainly distressed the 15th century scribe. Not only would scribes be finding themselves out of a job, they would also be finding themselves losing a certain amount of human control of writing that mechanized printing does not afford. Bolter (2001) notes further distancing of human control of writing with the advent of the industrial age of steam and electric printing. Kress (2005) similarly discusses the gains and losses that the remediation of writing brings about including feelings of despair, anger and nostalgia. Though Kress (2005) is describing shifts in multimodal representation and the displacement of writing with images, he emphasises the wider economic, political, social, cultural and technological context in which remediation of the written word takes place – a context not exclusive to present time and key in helping determine the remediation of any technology.
I think we can go even further back in time to the advent of literacy and the traumatic effect of writing on oral cultures of the past. Ong (1982) likens people’s current fears of computers, especially calculators, to Plato’s fears of writing in Phaedrus and The Seventh Letter. Here, Plato suggests that writing weakens the mind. Many parents would suggest the same about calculators weakening their children’s ability to mentally perform simple arithmetic (Ong, 1982). Surely one ought to avoid any tool or technology considered harmful to the proper functioning of the mind! A further potential distressing effect of writing as a technology, like computers, is its unresponsiveness to queries and inability to defend itself – two important affordances of verb communication (Ong, 1982).
Catapulting us back to the present day, we are currently witnessing the traumatising, revolutionising and democratising effects of digital literacy and the emergence of new civic voices in the form of social media literacy and empowerment. Growing media literacy through social, mobile and cms technologies is leading to new and growing opportunities for civic participation by those formerly known as ‘the audience’ (Mihailidis, 2011). The Arab Spring is perhaps one of the most talked about (and no doubt traumatizing) examples of how digital literacy is reshaping citizenship and our role in influencing political and social structures. While the effects of the Arab Spring and other social media based political movements have turned a number of societies (and entire nations) upside-down, what is emerging is a growing body of scholarship and practice aimed at creating media literacy educational initiatives (Mihailidis, 2011).
I think it is suffice to say that unless all remediations of writing are considered traumatizing, none of them are. What is perhaps traumatizing about any innovation or change of our present time is that we are experiencing the change ourselves. We were not around for the mechanization of the written word in the 15th century and therefore do not have first-hand knowledge of any injurious impact print technology first had on the human psyche. Manuscript to print was surely a ‘revolution’ in its day as was the shift from orality to literacy.
It can also be argued that it is not the innovation and now ubiquitous existence of digital writing technologies that is traumatizing. Nor is it Web 2.0, the Internet, hypermedia, hypertext, word processing, mechanized print, pencils, paper, quills, ink, papyrus or any other form of writing technology in the history of literacy. What is in fact traumatizing is the thought of a world without writing – the idea that if Plato had had his way, this “thing” called writing, this “inhuman” and “manufactured product” would not exist today (Ong, 1982).
Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S8755461504000660
Mihailidis, P. (2011). New civic voices & the emerging media literacy landscape. Journal of Media Literacy Education 3:1, p4-5. Retrieved from http://www.jmle.org/index.php/JMLE/article/view/167/129.
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. NY: Routledge.