Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

writing (and thinking) by hand

Here’s a response from John Durham Peters to my 79 Theses on Technology. However, I’m not quite sure what sort of a response it is. It could be a dissent, or it could be just a riff on some of the themes I introduced.

For instance, Peters writes, “We humans never do anything without technique, so we shouldn’t pretend there is any ontological difference between writing by hand, keyboarding, and speaking, or that one of them is more original or pure than the other. We are technical all the way down in body and mind.” Does he believe that I have suggested that writing by hand is non-technological? If so, I would like to know where I did so.

But then he also writes, “Writing with two hands on a keyboard, dictating to a person or a machine, writing with chalk, quill, pencil, or pen — each embody mind in different ways,” and this seems to be a re-statement of my theses 64-66.

So I dunno. You be the judge.

But while we’re on the subject of handwriting, here’s a wonderful essay by Naveet Alang that explores these questions far more subtly than I did, and raises an additional question: To what extent does writing on a screen, using a stylus, enable the same qualities of mind and body that writing with a pen on paper does?

It would be altogether too optimistic to say that digital handwriting offers some kind of countervailing balance to this shift. For one, it is being pushed by enormous multinationals. When you mark up a PDF in Microsoft’s OneNote, it automatically gets uploaded to the cloud, becoming one more reason to hook you into the vertical silo of a tech giant’s services. Technology does not carry an inherent politics, but it does have tendencies to encourage behaviour one way or another. The anti-Facebook revolution will not come in the form of a digital pen, and Microsoft’s emphasis on the pen as a form of personal computing simply mirrors Apple’s similar ethos: pleasure breeds consumption, which in turn breeds profits.

For all that, though, what pens do offer is both practical and symbolic resistance to the pre-programmed nature of the modern web — its tendency to ask you to express yourself, however creatively and generatively, within the literal and figurative constraints of a small, pre-defined box. There is a charming potential in the pen for activity that works against the grain of those things: to mark out in one’s own hand the absurdities of some top ten list, or underlining some particularly poignant paragraph in a way that a highlight or newly popular screenshotting tool doesn’t quite capture. Perhaps it’s the visual nature of the transgression — the mark of a hand slashed across a page — that produces emblematically the desire for self-expression: not the witty tweet or status update, nor just the handwritten annotation, but the doubled, layered version of both, the very overlap put to one’s own, subjective ends. And then there is more simple pleasure: that you are, in both an actual and metaphorical sense, drawing outside the lines. If one can draw over and annotate a web page and then send it to a friend, for example, the web at least feels less hegemonic, recalling the kind of interactivity and freedom of expression once found in the now-broken dream of blog comment sections.

Fascinating stuff. Please read it all.


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