I used to think – and have written elsewhere – that, for me, the most appreciated advantage of the computer is that I can get things down almost as fast as I they come to me, therefore diminishing the likelihood of my forgetting anything valuable in the process.
I compared this to its diametrical stenographical opposite – transcribing on stone tablets with a hammer and chisel – where I imagined you could easily lose your train of thought, chiseling the first letter of the first word.
“I know what it starts with – I am doing an ‘O’ – but I have no longer any idea what comes next. If only ‘O’ wasn’t so arduous. Doing ‘round’ on stone – it takes, like, forever. I finally get it done, and I have zero recollection of what I wanted to say. What am I left with? A tablet with an ‘O’ on it.”
From stone tablet, to scratching dye on papyrus, to writing with a feather, to various forms of pens – from the fountain pen to the ballpoint – to, mechanically, the linotype, to the typewriter, to the electric typewriter, to the computer – something like that, give or take what I left out. Consistently, every stenographic advancement moved in the direction of “faster.”
We have lightning quick minds, some of us. Maybe everyone does, but the people who think about it like to think it’s just us. We have brilliant ideas, these same “some of us” like to think. If we lose even one insight because we could not get it down before it elusively slipped our minds, we perceive it as a tragedy, not just for the person whose mind this stroke of genius temporarily flew into, but for all humankind. We like to think.
MIDDLE AGES RESEARCHER: “I had the definitive cure for baldness. Right in my mind, clear as day. I reached quickly for a scrap of paper to write it down, I wrote ‘The Definitive Cure For Baldness’ at the top – so I’d remember what it was the definitive cure for. Suddenly, I remember I need to go to the Cleaners Shoppe – my wife got a Black Plague stain on her party dress and they were trying to get it out, and the place was closing in ten minutes, and if I forgot to pick it up I’d be in big trouble with the missus – and with that tiny distraction, the definitive cure for baldness flew right out of head. If only there’d been some kind of a machine for writing things really fast, I could have quickly completed that note. My failure could mean a continuation of the scourge of baldness for centuries to come. On top of which – a smaller concern but annoying nonetheless – I was so distraught about losing the cure, when I raced to the Cleaners Shoppe, I forgot the receipt.”
How many life-altering ideas, inventions, illuminations and aphorisms have been lost over the ages, because the mode of transcribing them was too poky? Jokes, too – let’s not forget jokes.
A hilarious line comes to you, but in the extended process of writing it down, you forget parts of it – a salient descriptive, or you leave out some words, or equally destructively, you add some, such that, when you read the thing over when you’re finished– it is no longer funny!
“If only I had gotten it down faster!” you lament. Then, suddenly…
You notice something that leads to believe in the strong possibility that you were wrong about everything. Not totally everything, like, you never said anything right in your entire life. But everything related to this issue. Which, itself, is quite a lot.
As I mentioned yesterday, I am listening on tape to a book entitled, The Man Who Saved The Union – Ulysses Grant In War And Peace (23 discs, of which I am currently on 20.) Therein did I discover a challenging contradiction to my previously held belief.
In a biography of a nineteenth century person, you will inevitably encounter quotes, rendered both by the subject him or her self, or the people involved, largely and smally, in the biographee’s life. Quotes from the mouths – or the writings – of nineteenth century persongages, from a time when they wrote with a feather, or maybe just after, when they wrote with the implement that followed the feather, which was undoubtedly no miraculous step forward.
You would think, due to that day’s arduous method of transcription, their pronouncements would be commensurately brief. Cryptic, even, because it would be difficult for the stenographer to keep up with the speaker, or, if one were transcribing one’s own words, to keep up with one’s thoughts.
And yet, the opposite proves to be the case. Nineteenth century sentences go on forever, qualifying and clarifying on their unhurried way towards the ultimate and inevitable period.
Here’s a guy, in a letter written in the early 1870’s, who, despite internecine turmoil in Louisiana, desires President Grant not to send down federal troops to interfere.
We assure you, Your Excellency, that the white people of Louisiana, owning upwards of three hundred and fifty millions of property, and largely interested in commerce and agriculture, desire only to elect and establish a government of competent and honest officials, under which all legitimate interests of all persons, irrespective of race, color or previous condition of servitude will be protected.
The guy was lying his head off. But look how precisely he went about it. A sixty-one word sentence. In which the man makes certain to include all facts and clarifiers salient to (his version of) the situation at hand. That guy didn’t have a computer. And yet, he remembered (and included) in comprehensive detail everything he wanted to say.
Leading me to ponder if maybe I had gotten things altogether backwards.
Maybe, because it took them so long to get the words down – and also needing to proceed deliberately, understanding that if they made a mistake, they could not “delete” it; they had to write the entire thing over again – writers in earlier times, their minds regulated by the relaxed rhythms of their implements, had a more leisurely opportunity to think about and perfect what they were committing to paper.
They had one shot at it. Their minds were not racing. Maybe it was they, and not us, who did the better job of communicating their message.
Check this out, from the eighteenth century.
When it the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which they Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
That’s the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Pretty good, huh? It hits precisely the right note. A seventy-one word sentence. With our technological advantages allowing us to record every thought and contingency, how, in contrast, might the independence declarers of today declare it?
“We’re leaving, and here’s why.”
Or, if texting,
“Wr lvng & hrs y.”
Rather than allowing us to include every idea and nuance as it pops to mind, accelerating our stenographic abilities appears to have encouraged us to commensurately contract our communications.
Making me wonder what we’re missing.