Dennis Duncan

Is writing now changing the world for the worse?

Humanity’s great civilising accomplishment may have slipped the leash. Computer programs and surveillance also involve ‘writing’, potentially making us decreasingly human

A coding programmer writing on a laptop with circuit board and java script on a virtual screen. [Getty Images]

How do you feel about writing? Does that sound like a bizarre question? OK, what about this? Do you worry that you don’t read enough? About the encroachment of screen time into book time? About the decline of letter-writing or penmanship? In universities, where ChatGPT has made a nightmare of written assessments, lecturers have had to fall back on viva voce interviews to determine whether students are the true authors of the essays they submit. My hunch is that writing – the idea of writing – is now more fretted over than celebrated; that what we feel towards this venerable invention is, on the whole, something like a complex of anxieties.

At the same time, of course, there is a wild negativity bias going on here. Our species, suggests Walter Stephens, might as well be called Homo scribens, Man the Writer. ‘Writing,’ he notes, ‘is the one accomplishment we do not share with Neanderthals and our other ancestors.’ Imagine there’s no writing. It’s not that easy:

No pencils, no pens, no paper, no grocery lists. No chalkboards, typewriters or printing presses, no letters or books. No computers or word processors, no email or internet, no social media; and without binary code – strings of ones and zeroes that create computer programs – no viewable archives, no film or television either.

So we can be at once anxious about our relationship to writing while at the same time acknowledging how lost we would be without it.

Even Plato recognised this ambivalence. In one dialogue, the Phaedrus, he has Socrates recount a story in which the Egyptian god Theuth, having invented writing, is admonished for it: ‘This discovery will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories.’

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