Questioning the written word

Question marks on the pageSometimes the most baffling truths are hidden within seemingly pointless observations.

In the throes of putting together my doctoral dissertation proposal, I’ve been mentally twirling one such observation: Writing always says something. That is, a given piece of writing always says the same something. And, seeing as writing is free from many of the limitations of speech and has considerable fixity (or “persistence”), a given piece of writing will be saying that same something for quite some time. What are the implications of this?

Many people are familiar with Socrates’ critique of writing, levied around the birth of the written word in Ancient Greek, that it may lead to impoverished memory. But Socrates had much more to say about writing than that. One of his key concerns was precisely what I wrote above. As he says in Phaedrus, transcribed by Plato:

You would imagine that they [written records] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

I’ve written before on how, because of this constancy, we put our trust in the written word. We privilege written forms of knowledge; if something is written down, we’re more inclined to believe it; and if we see something over and over, we’re more likely to take it as true.

But beyond this, there’s another vulnerability that the written word opens us up to: It gives us the answers. When we get easy answers, we don’t seem to work as hard to integrate new information with what we already know. That’s because doing this—building understanding—requires that we pose questions, that we have a back-and-forth, a conversation. If you’re diligent, you can have a conversation with the written word; Ron Day writes in Indexing It All that before the 19th century people regularly thought of reading a book as having a conversation with a  friend. But nowadays, we seem less inclined to question the things we’re reading. Concomitantly, many of us now read more than we interact with live people: We’re getting swarmed with answers, and we’re forgetting how to ask questions. As far as I can see, this is the real dark side of information abundance.

We need to keep asking questions. It’s what makes us human. This is what futurist Kevin Kelly argues in his new book The Inevitable, which explores several trends that will shape the technology of the future; Kelly argues that, for all the smarts and efficacy of future technologies, coming up with good questions will continue to be the sole purview of humanity. And in a world where more and more jobs previously done by humans are getting couped by computers, this is no time to forget how to ask questions.

So what can we do? Some advice in this regard comes from public speaker Michael Gelb’s books How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Creativity on Demand, which offer a framework to increase the quality of your creative output—this involves, inherently, getting good at asking questions.

But we also need to stock our toolbox for getting better at asking questions of the written word. To me, this comes down to improved literacy practice. In the information sciences, there’s a lot of talk of different kinds of literacy—information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy…—but it all comes down to building questioning skills. As researcher Jamie McKenzie writes in her book Beyond Technology:

Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

The urgency of building such skills for questioning and understanding has, for me, come to the fore in the recent election season. Much of the political information we deal with these days comes through the written word. In such a climate, poor questioning skills can have grave consequences for our country and planet.

There’s no better time to start than right now—you’ve been reading the written word for the past few minutes. In the spirit of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Spend some time today questioning what you’ve been reading.

“It’s handwritten, but not by me!”

Ah, the personal touch of a handwritten note.

Ever since the dawn of type, people have been talking about how special handwriting is. In type, the English alphabet has only 26 letters (make that 52, counting lowercase and capitalized forms), but in handwriting, there are infinite letters. Just think of all the ways you can write the letter g and have it still be recognizable. (Indeed there is an entire blog dedicated to this letterform.) When we read something handwritten, we get a sense of the personality and emotion of the writer. This is why, when printed Bibles came along, people found the words a bit lacking in spirit. And it’s why handwritten letters are so special for us, even today (if a bit sloppier).

With digital technology, we’re no longer limited to keyboards and mice for input. With trackpads and touch screens, we can combine some of the personality of handwriting with the capability of electronics. The latest update to Apple’s iOS on the iPhone and iPad takes advantage of this, giving people the opportunity to send handwritten and drawn messages. Recipients can even replay the drawing to see how it came to be.

iOS 10 handwriting feature

While exploring this feature, I was struck by what seems to be an absurdity: It comes loaded with a number of pre-written messages—hello, thank you, happy birthday, etc.—that you can simply tap and send. That is, you can send a handwritten message without actually having to write it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—it turns out ghostwriting love letters is a sustainable business (and I feel like it figured in the plot of a novel I read once, but I can’t remember what it was).

Still, this seems tremendously weird to me. Wouldn’t a recipient find it disingenuous to receive the exact same text again and again? Though, then again, will people actually use these pre-made messages? For now, all I can do is speculate.


To word a world

The poet Muriel Rukeyser told us, “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.” Of course there is some kind of world made of atoms out there, but it’s not my world. I don’t see through atomic microscope eyes. I don’t see with utterly detached scientific objectivity. No, I’m a person, just like you, awash in the world—a world made of stories.


Too often, we seem to forget this. We seem to wish we were more mechanical. We talk about our minds as if they were computers—some even dream of a technological singularity that will obsolesce our very bodies. But this theoscientific point of view misses a whole swath of the universe: the lifeworld. Philosopher Roger Scruton presents beautifully the duality of the scientific perspective of the universe and that of the lifeworld: Whereas the scientific perspective hears sounds, the lifeworld hears music.

I’ve been thinking about worlds a lot recently. I wrote a piece on Medium about how we create lifeworlds to inhabit simply by being human—I describe in particular the ultrarunning world. And recently I saw the film adaptation of the eponymous literary masterwork The Little Prince, in which we travel from world to world. We don’t literally travel from world to world, but rather we come to inhabit others’ lifeworlds—represented in the book and the film as tiny planets.

One of the pleasures of the lifeworld is that we share it, with innumerable beings—common things like scissors and tomatoes (as oded by Pablo Neruda), and of course other people. Besides this automatic, passive sharing, we can welcome others to participate in our lifeworld by opening them up to it. We do this through communication.

One way to communicate is through the written word, a very powerful way to share lifeworlds. We tend to assume that writing merely represents—for instance, the word “tree” represents the thing in real life that we call a tree. Certainly writing does this, and some writing—above all technical writing—relies on it.

If writing could only represent, it would go nowhere in trying to create a bridge between lifeworlds. But we know writing can do more—we’ve all gotten lost in a novel, for instance, taken over by the characters’ lifeworlds. Writing evokes the lifeworld in this way not by representing, but by presenting. It’s not the words themselves, which only represent; rather, it’s somewhere between and among them where the presentation unfolds. This is what your English teacher meant when they told you, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s why a summary of a novel does no justice to the experience of reading the novel. It’s why thoughtlessly adapting a novel to a different medium can be disruptive. That’s what it means to word a world.