leah blogs

September 2005

26sep2005 · Reflections on writing

Why do we write? First, and foremost, writing is used to communicate. In the old times, when written language more or less was invented, people used to write to store data, say the number of sheep they own or which fields they need to plow in which year.

Slowly over time, the focus of writing—which was nothing more than bookkeeping back then—changed significantly. The interesting works of history are not the ones that store, but the ones that tell.

Now, where is the difference between that? In the eyes of a technician, there is no difference. Words are written by changing matter. However, the intent is completely different, and, while it sounds weird, we need to compare the topics of written things first.

Storing the number of sheep you have is of no interest to somebody else than you (and probably the tax office). While it certainly is information—essential information, you’d say—, it is of very limited use to others.

The next thing that was written down, after these items of financial interest, were stories. Stories of wars, heroes, lore and legends are the main content that’s left over from ancient times. Before they were written down, people used to tell them each other vocally, which kept them changing over the course of time. Usually, you wouldn’t write them down; after all, you can either remember them, or just invent what you forgot, but people did nevertheless write them down. Here, we have a mix of storing and telling. The stories of them still can be read, but more importantly, they are of our interest, for reasons whatsoever.

There was only one problem with writing by changing matter. And that problem is the matter itself. When information is bound to matter, it cannot easily be copied. It is easy to tell your story to others, but if you have engraved it into stone, spreading it becomes hard work.

Gutenberg does not play a significant role here. While he did an important thing to history by inventing the printing press, it didn’t ultimatively solve the problem. Printing still was expensive, and bound to matter. Copying was made more easy, but the fundamental problem persisted.

Nowadays, in the time of computers, but far more importantly, the Internet, information is free. It is not limited by matter anymore. You may argue, of course, that your hard disk consists of matter. This is true, but the information does not consist of matter. There is no ink in the disk that gets empty and you need to refill. You just toggle the magnetism of particles. With this change, information is trivial to copy and distribute.

This change totally changed writing. While a lot of people still write to store—just think of to-do lists, private diaries etc.—communication over written language, telling, became the primary application of the net, let it be email, instant messaging, newsgroups or, in the end, the web.

The change also reflects in the topics that are written about. The audience of written information can change with the medium. In the old times, you either wrote a letter or a book. A letter was usually used for one-to-one communication, at least if you didn’t want to copy your letter for each recipient. A book, on the other hand, was for a rather big mass, not at least because it was expensive to print books.

With the net, this is different. There are lots of blogs—which is essentially writing for the sole purpose of telling (even if I admit to often search in my own blog entries, trying to find what I once knew)—with a very limited audience. That’s no problem at all, but something that was not impossible before. The difference is that the people that want to read you find you; and not the other way round, as in case of writing letters.

You put information online for others to find and make use of it. And your readers can comment on them, take them apart (if you use a liberal license) and assemble them again, extend them, spread them, even print them out and materialize the things you tell.

While written information still is stored, this is not its main purpose anymore. It’s communication, and therefore we write to tell.

[Ironically, I wrote this to get ready for doing some English homework, but I think it makes enough sense to be read by others.]

NP: Big Bud—Chill

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