Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Cursive, Foiled Again

I'm reading the 1999 third edition of David Crowley and Paul Heyer's academic reader Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society, and I just finished three intriguing pieces.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat's "The Earliest Precursor of Writing" considers the role played by clay tokens -- and signs imprinted on their containers -- in helping to develop written language. Harold Innis's "Media in Ancient Empires" takes a look at the move from stone to papyrus in Egyptian society -- and how papyrus' portability helped the empire spread. And Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher's "Civilization without Writing -- the Incas and the Quipu" explores the use of another early form of record keeping -- one that's particularly tactile yet portable.

One statement in Innis's contribution struck me especially strongly: "Writing on papyrus permitted cursive forms suited to rapid writing." Later, he indicates that the Sumerian use of clay as a writing medium required a transition from using pictographs to "formal patterns" and signs in order to communicate.

What interests me is the focus on portability and speed of communication. The use of papyrus and quipu meant that communication could take place on a farther, larger, and wider scale. The use of quipu made communication a very tactile and physical experience. Carving images in stone takes a lot of time and effort, while you can imprint information on wet clay using a premade roller -- a cylinder seal, say -- quite quickly.

We've seen a rapid improvement in the portability of communications media. Single, handmade tomes made way for mass-produced books made on a printing press. Books have been joined by newspapers and magazines. And now, with the Net, we've moved away from atoms to bits. Regardless, the devices we need to receive and interpret those atoms are as bulky if not moreso than the clay envelopes designed to encase the tokens of 3200 BC (even if they do hold much more information). Laptop computers and laptops are not as portable as books, magazines, or newspapers. The activities of companies like Plastic Logic presage more portable devices, but as things are, even our cell phones are too clumsy for true data management and massaging even as texting picks up.

Which brings me back to speed of communication. Handwriting and reading remain one of the most intimate and efficient ways to communicate. Yet as more students write term papers in text speak, schools are devoting less time to teaching cursive writing, which Innis suggests is one of the more rapid forms of communicating.

When was the last time you wrote in cursive? Do your children know how to write in cursive? What does it mean for society -- and humanity -- when we cannot write in cursive any more? Or even block letters? What happens when people can only type to write?

Update: Check out this Wired article on the khipu. I read that piece after posting this entry. Weird.

1 comment:

Valeria Maltoni said...

Heath:

It's great to read you talk about cursive writing and book reading. They are experiential activities that should not be replaced by new media-- as they engage tactile and fine motor functions that help us develop neurologically. As well as being highly enjoyable in an intimate setting, as you suggest.

I too did a short post on writing, as in Letter Writing, the Lost Art http://conversationagent.typepad.com/conversation_agent/2006/10/letter_writing.html

Happy New Year!