"Writing may be one of the most important discoveries in human history. But it was easy-to-use writing implements--including the pencil, pen and brush--that made mass education and literacy possible" (Forbes.com). A recent study by Forbes.com readers, editors and a panel of experts, suggests that the pencil is the fourth most important tool of all time, trailing behind the knife, abacus, and compass (Forbes.com). No doubt the pencil has changes the way we live, work, and think. Its ability to allow us to erase and redo what we record on paper has forever changed the way people write. Like the pencil, the digital word processor has also contributed to the possibilities of editing and recording words. Word processing applications have allowed for full and speedy control over text. But are the advantages worth creating possible long term consequences?
[A Students Definition of Writing]
I believe that writing is defined as a means to communicate or express thoughts and ideas through letters or characters that constitute readable matter. I don't think the general definition has ever changed, however I do believe that we have expanded on the categories of writing. Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project recently concluded that "even though teens are heavily embedded in a tech-rich world, they do not believe that communication over the internet or text messaging is writing" (Writing, Technology and Teens). In a way, I agree with those teens. I feel like the general term "writing" is non-specific, and currently implies some degree of formality. I agree with Marc Prensky in his essay titled "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" that new methods are needed to educate the students of the "digital generation" (Prensky). New methods of teaching the writing curriculum need to be implemented with respect to changing technologies. Or we at least need to make up new terms if the word "writing" is to imply formality.
[History of Easy-to-Use Writing Implements]
For hundreds of years pens and brushes dominated the writing world. But in 1564, a huge cache of graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England. Local residents used the graphite to mark their sheep, and soon discovered that they could cut it into sticks and carry it with them to write with. In 1770, Edward Naime, an English engineer, created and began selling the first rubber erasers (Forbes.com). People soon realized the benefit of having both pencil and eraser and the two were joined. From here on, people had the ability to reuse paper. That is if they made a mistake they didn't have to start all over on a clean sheet.
The computer word processor simply builds off of the idea of the pencil and eraser; changing things around and fixing mistakes without having to start from the beginning. A word processor, or word processing program, does exactly what it sounds like. It processes words. It also processes paragraphs, pages, and entire papers.
The first word processors were basically computerized typewriters, which pretty much only placed characters on a screen. Modern word processing programs integrate advanced features to allow the user to customize and organize the text using visual cues. This type of organizational progression, from little or no options, to flexible and many, can be seen to parallel the ways that scribes in the Carolingian period began to use "different script (unicial) to indicate titles and demarcate sections. By the 13th century, scribes had developed a number of visual cues to help the reader locate text and keep his orientation" (Bolter 66).
[The Benefits of the Word Processor and its Materiality]
One example of a word processing program is Microsoft Word. "Word" as most call it, is the most common word processor used today. Word has many options for including visual cues; you can add headers, footers, and have numbers be automatically included on each pace. There are page layout options so you can organize the entire document at once, table options to organize information and bullet point styles to generate lists. Word also allows the user to save and comeback to the document at a later time. Like filing a paper document, Microsoft Word allows the user to save the document electronically. It does not take up space in your file cabinet, yet it is still stored some place special. One could think of the blank Microsoft Word document as a clean space, a fresh canvas, or an empty file. I like to imagine the blank digital "page" as a fresh piece of paper that can be molded to express my ideas through text and visual cues.
When some digital immigrants look at a computer keyboard they see letters, I see words. I get so absorbed in the Word document that I forget about what's in between my thoughts and my digital space. An idea floats from my brain, through my arms, and out my fingertips. Some people don't even get the chance to see the magic transcend from finger tip to button because they have grown so efficient at typing that they no longer have to look at the keys. From the keyboard the information is passed to the computer. It is bounced around a bit, through the motherboard, hard drive, and processor, and then it is sent out the video card, though the monitor cable, and displayed perfectly on your computer screen; and all that in only a few milliseconds time. Add speed to all of the other word processing advantages and I believe that you have the new "fourth most important tool of all time."
I myself rely on word processors. When starting a Word document I feel I have to first form an outline-like format to begin. I have to break down my thought so I can visualize how I need to approach my topic. I would say that I take full advantage of skipping through the different sections of my outline, slowly filling in text, cutting and pasting here and there.
I completely agree with David Bolter in his book Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, that with a word processor, writers have more freedom to change things around. Bolter says that "by defining topical symbols (in a word processor), such as headings in an outline, the writer can, like the programmer or the mathematician, abstract herself temporarily from the details of the prose. The value of this abstraction lies in seeing more clearly the structural skeleton of the text" (Bolter 30).
I have to admit, I wouldn't know what to do if had to write this paper out by hand. Maybe I would start with post cards to try and organize my thoughts similar to what I would do with a digital outline. I remember trying to write papers by hand, before word processors were available in schools. This leads me to the question; am I a digital immigrant? I feel as if I am well familiar with technology, but I also like to take hand written notes and read from hard copy texts. Was it those few years in grade school, where I was writing and researching by hand that imprinted my brain and left me with an immigrant-like accent? I barely remember those years yet I still feel like my subconscious influences my learning. If I need to take notes by hand, yet rely on a word processor to write papers, am I the ultimate proof for how new technology changes how the brain works?
[How the Word Processor Affects Us - Technological Determinism]
The word processor has defiantly changed the way I think about writing. Not only do I rely on it to write papers, but it has completely redefined the way I write. Not only can I slowly work on content and structure, but I don't have to worry about spelling or punctuation anymore either. I simply type my thoughts and review later with spell check. However convenient this spell checker may be, I believe that it has turned me helpless without it. By simply right clicking on the highlighted-misspelled word, I can pick what I believe to be the correct spelling, the most likely spelling being the first choice on the list. I feel as if this easy method has hindered my ability to learn correct spelling. Until time and efficiency becomes so important that I simply must learn a word's correct spelling, I see no urgency to learn the word. This sounds naive, but with spell check being so available on most devices, even on cell phones for text messaging, when really do I not have the crutch? All of my school assignments are electronic, and rarely do I hand write notes to people. Come to think of it, really the only time I regret not being a good speller is when I am hand writing essays for school. It's funny because I know which words I can't spell and must avoid because I recognize them from right clicking on them in Word, but I can't remember how it's actually spelled. I wonder, if instead of right clicking on the correct spelling to change the word, would I learn the word better if I right clicked to see the correct spelling, and then corrected it manually myself?
I sometimes wonder if the makers of Microsoft Word anticipated such effects from their product. Poor spelling associated with ease of correction is just one consequence I have come to realize. I wonder; how else am I affected by word processors? I feel as if we all might be victims of the word processing "Frankenstein Syndrome." Daniel Chandler mentions this theory and associates it with technical autonomy; "after a machine is built (for a specific purpose), we discover that it has its own ideas; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but... of changing our habits of mind" (Chandler).
I can't help but wonder what will Microsoft think of next to "make our lives easier"? Will spell-check advance one day to do the learning for us? Will it soon remember words we misspell and automatically replace the misspelled word with the one we were most likely to choose from the correct spelling options? I personally would like to see Microsoft Word feature the option of generating a list of words that I commonly misspell while using the program.
So where is word processing taking us? Are we different human beings because of it? If we are always updating and changing it to work harder for us, how is it changing us? Sure word processing applications have come a long way, but they aren't done evolving yet. There is always something that could be done to make our lives easier (or maybe worse), to allow Microsoft to sell a newer-better version of their easy-to-use writing implement.
Bolter, David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Print.
Chandler, Daniel. "Technological Determinism: Technological Autonomy." Prifysgol Aberystwyth / Aberystwyth University. Web. 12 Feb. 2010
"No. 4 The Pencil - Forbes.com." Forbes.com - Business News, Financial News, Stock Market Analysis, Technology & Global Headline News. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
Prensky, Marc. "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." Twitchspeed.com. Web. 17 Feb. 2010.
"Word Processor Definition." The Tech Terms Computer Dictionary. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
"Writing, Technology and Teens | Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project." Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.