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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writing: Quality vs. Quantity and a Nod to the "Technoscribe"

My tech-savvy friend Sam and I have been talking a great deal lately about the quality of writing, and how we each write differently depending on if we're typing versus writing in longhand. This has been something much talked about on forums such as the Fountain Pen Network. Today there is much more of an emphasis on 'quantity' instead of quality, and nothing embodies this more than Twitter and text messaging in general. Language is being chopped down, abbreviated, made into symbols and numbers, only to represent a general idea of someone's fleeting thought, with a limitation on characters being the main motivator.

Sam sent me this online article from ArsTechnica.com talking about how the US Library of Congress is going to save every Tweet every Tweeted, for posterity (and I wouldn't be surprised if Facebook is next). That means every tweet from your friend saying "just took a dump, gonna make a grilled cheese" to the "check out my naughty vids" tweets you get from random 'hot girls' that follow you are going to be pieces to the puzzle that we save for future generations to see how we live right now.

So this poses an interesting question. Is it well thought-out, educated writing that should be saved for posterity, or the mundane day-to-day details that we don't think twice about that will shape what future generations think of us? Here's what Sam wrote me:
"We all have to ask ourselves just one question: do we want the future generations of humans to construct their view of our lives based on 140 character snippets that are not very well constructed and mostly link to things that no longer exist, or would we rather them find our old dusty journals, filled with our free flowing thoughts poured out with no character limit, painting an infinitely more personal picture of who we really are?

Or, more concisely, what creates a truer picture of who you are and how you live your life: your journal or your Twitter stream?"
Sam embodies the essence of what I am 'officially' coining the term "Technoscribe", an individual who has a strong understanding of technology and computers yet still chooses to write in the physical medium (via pen and paper). The technoscribe's motivations can vary quite a bit, but the underlying theme is that there is a greater thought, meaning, or passion that is derived from making a physical connection with a pen in your hand to the paper on your desk (or lap, as the case may be). The technoscribe is one who owns and uses an iPhone, yet carries a physical weekly planner for day-to-day organization. The technoscribe sends dozens or hundreds of emails at work every day, yet comes home to write letters in longhand to friends and pen pals. The technoscribe has a daily blog to express thoughts and ideas (perhaps even about writing!), yet at the end of the day will curl up in bed with a pen and a journal to write about their thoughts and feelings of the day.

I've noticed this as a trend with most of my paper and ink customers (primarily fountain pen users). I am an online retailer, so clearly the vast majority of my customers are computer literate and tech-savvy. As I have branched out with more and more technological mediums (this blog, my YouTube channel, flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Ustream, and forums like Fountain Pen Network, to name a few), I have been reaching different types of tech-savvy folks with a common interest in writing. I've even read other blogs about this similar phenomenon among photographers and graphic designers.

This is a unique phenomenon we're encountering with the advancement of technology, almost a paradox. People using the internet to connect to each other with a passion for writing which is inherently removed from the very technology that is helping to sustain it. There is not enough interest to locally sustain a business selling the pens, paper, and ink to support this passion, so everyone is turning to the internet. Online retailers like me are making products (and information about how to best use these products) more available through websites and blogs, yet the very use of these products requires one to be 'offline'.

Sam had an interesting point though, one that I have not considered about the technoscribe's interest in fountain pens specifically. In Sam's words:
"As I now see it (which I might add I discovered through writing about this topic in my journal), the fountain pen is the most advanced writing technology; and Clairefontaine paper is the most advanced paper; and J. Herbin makes the most advanced inks. The roller ball pen is definitely a huge step down after all the advances up to the modern fountain pen. Think about the history of the writing instrument; the fountain pen is most definitely the absolute best writing instrument before roller balls took over and then electronic communication came along."
Sam brings up an interesting point that the technoscribe might not be writing with a fountain pen in order to 'get away' from technology, but rather because the fountain pen represents the most advanced technology ever produced in a writing instrument. It's the 'gadget' appeal. You can customize and grind nibs to your exact preference, get a pen made in a variety of materials, styles, colors, and complex filling mechanisms, there are a multitude of colors of inks (including even glow-in-the-dark ink!), and a variety of paper sizes, colors, styles, and textures to suit the feel of writing you prefer, or the effect you want to give the recipient of your writing. The world of fountain pens is in and of itself a very complex and interesting place, the exact type of environment in which is a technophile's playground. When a technophile enters into the world of the fountain pen, a technoscribe is born.

So I leave you with this thought: is the change in technology from the physical writing world to the digital writing world an abomination leaving only the history of well-written documents in longhand writing? Or is it a birth of a new purpose for longhand writing, one where it is no longer necessary for daily communication, but used only by those who are passionate enough to do it even though they don't have to?


***Not two hours after posting this, I received an email from Justin with the attached image:

It's actually not the first time I've received an email of a handwritten letter before. Though I wanted to show Justin's letter here because he's the first one I've heard from who uses a word processor to assist in writing longhand, often I heard it the other way around. This adds a whole new dimension to the relationship of technology and writing, one that I myself will look to explore further.

11 comments:

  1. As a Twitter and fountain pen user, I would actually say that both can promote quality writing. With fountain pen, you slow down for mechanical reasons. On Twitter, you must figure out how to garner the most impact with 140 characters (usually towards a specific audience). The digital writing world forces the average person to write more.

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  2. That's an excellent point. I think that an important thing to keep in mind is that computers, Twitter, pens, paper.....they're all just tools and will help you to accomplish a task. The fact someone uses a fountain pen doesn't mean everything they write will be worth saving, same with Twitter. It all depends what you're trying to accomplish. Twitter can take a concise message and send it to hundreds of thousands of people instantly, whereas a handwritten letter will take days to arrive somewhere to be viewed by one person. The two accomplish two completely different tasks, so perhaps both have their own place in the world?

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  3. your perspective is fascinating, and i think it's accurate.

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  4. Why thank you :D What I'm finding is that there are a great number of 'technoscribes' out there in the world, but with no central identity or place in which to build a community. That's what I aim to do is give them all a place to learn and share more about the marriage of old-world writing and technological innovation, a beautiful dance of paradoxical elegance!

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  5. Then again, by the time I've gone to the trouble to write something up in Word, I might as well print it off using some really cool longhand font like Texas Hero or Jane Austen.

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  6. "I think that an important thing to keep in mind is that computers, Twitter, pens, paper.....they're all just tools and will help you to accomplish a task. The fact someone uses a fountain pen doesn't mean everything they write will be worth saving, same with Twitter."

    I completely agree. It's why I get irked when I hear people dismiss newer technologies outright. I wrote my 2009 National Novel Writing Month novel with a fountain pen and on a computer. It still sucked (although it had some good parts). Writing it with a pencil, or through Twitter, or on a typewriter, or on cave walls would have not changed the novel's quality. *I* have to do that. Not my tools. Me.

    Incidentally, my application essay for graduate school was about this topic: how it seems that more and more people are turning to "old" technology (fountain pens, typewriters, etc) but using new technology (blogs, social networking, etc) to build communities, reach out, and such.

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  8. I'd propose that both can be rubbish or good writing. The medium I / you choose to use is orthogonal to the quality of the writing, the language skills used or the recipients view of the value of what is written? Technology is 'age' related, not quality related... IMHO

    DaveP

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  9. Dave, an excellent point! I equate the transformation of fountain pens and computers to 35mm film photography and digital cameras. Both mediums can be done extremely well and extremely poorly.

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  10. Interesting post ... due to mold issues, my cousins cannot have paper in their home, so I've taken to writing them a note with one on my fountain pens, scanning it and emailing them the scan.

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  11. your perspective is fascinating, and i think it's accurate.

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