Category Archives: Technology

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.


Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.