Is screen writing in some fundamental respects different from writing with pen or pencil on paper? If so in what ways, to what extent, and are the differences inconsequential or significant? By ‘screen writing’ I mean using a computer of some kind, whether a desktop, laptop, tablet or similar facilities on a mobile phone, to write communications of different kinds. And as some readers will have noted, the term screen writing is borrowed from a certain Dr S. Freud, indeed two of his ideas have been borrowed, put together and their meaning changed.
One borrowing concerns screen memory and the other the mystic writing pad. Screen memory for Freud is a recalled surface memory that masks or screens another that is deeper and of more significance. The mystic writing pad uses wax or another malleable substance; and it can be written on and then the words erased and the device reused, but with their traces still faintly remaining. Together they provide good metaphors for thinking about how the thing we call memory works, in both erasing and retaining.
Memory is always erased as well as retained. And what remains often masks things ‘forgotten’ that may be more important than what is remembered. But what do these truisms about memory have to do with writing, and specifically with writing letters?
The start of an answer is that writing is itself a form of memory, as the trace of what once was. It represents something in the mind or thought process, which is then translated into writing and is thereby transformed from the transitory into a something that remains constant across time and space. And when writing on paper, not only do these traces remain in tangible form, ‘a letter’, but the traces of revision and re-thinking are also often present in the form of deletions and insertions, things crossed out or added in inserts, margins, brief PSs, comments added on envelopes and so on. More strongly, if a revision or addition of some kind is made once the words appear in a visible form, then there will be a trace of this on the paper. The memory remains.
And then there was the computer, a screen, and a means of editing text that leads no surface trace. Indeed, that leaves none at all if particular drop-down menus in the Edit and Review areas of most word processing software packages are switched off. An interesting experiment to try is to write a usual epistolary-style of communication, say an email, but to do so in a word processing package after having gone to the review area to make visible what is usually called ‘mark-up’. Often the text then shown will bristle with the changes that have been made. Paradoxically, the apparent surface erasure of changes actually encourages more of them to be made, for while a letter-writer would once have been satisfied with a written document with its edits visible, now a totally clean text is often aspired to.
But does this matter, does it have any significance beyond the fact that it happens?
With screen writing (as with my having written this blog as a kind of letter from me to readers and therefore to a known if not specifically named set of recipients), communication becomes as a mirror, so that the memory of how I actually wrote it (which is with many additions, excisions and multiple other changes) is not so much erased or removed but in a way ceases to exist. The clean and pristine text that is reflected from the computer or tablet or phone screen is what the recipient gets and no more. Apparently time stops, for the text is seemingly removed from the temporal order of it having resulted from a writing process. And it becomes – or rather it is represented as, it represents itself as – pure product.
Has the handwriting changed from previously, are there many crossings-out, have the margins been written on, why are some words inserted…? Screen writing removes the possibility of the reader considering such questions. But, other technological changes occurring well before this have had similar effects in changing the relationship between the process and the product of writing. Typewriters and the use of carbon from the 1890s on, and even earlier the invention and wide use of the Manifold Writer (discussed elsewhere on the WWW website) from the 1840s on, for instance, impacted on and changed the writing process in ways that also markedly changed how the product, a letter or some other written communication, appeared and was seen.
In using a typewriter, the writer often and indeed perhaps usually endeavoured to ‘correct’ mistakes and if possible remove them from visibility. However, even ‘corrected’ mistakes in typewriting remained visible, so completely removing them in effect meant starting again. And earlier in using a Manifold Writer, there was no way of disguising or removing mistakes, which remained visible in the same way as they always had done in manuscript communications.
However, there is something more fundamental going on here in this latter example which needs recognising. In the 1840s, using a Manifold Writer meant that copies were routinely made at the same time as an ‘original’ communication, thereby in an important sense removing the difference between originals and copies, for in using a Manifold Writer both were produced by the same hand at exactly the same time. This should be seen as a change as fundamental as that commented on a hundred years afterwards by Walter Benjamin around the idea of ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ in relation to visual images. The Manifold Writer broke the mould by erasing the distinction between original and copy.
Does screen writing make changes to the writing process on a par with this? The case against says no, it was the Manifold Writer that made an ontological break, and screenwriting is not of this order. The case in support of the claim is that the erasure of writing-as-memory and of writing-as-process together with the valorisation of a temporally-denuded screen image make equally fundamental changes. Another ontological break has occurred: no time, no process, just a product. To elaborate:
A letter is – is it? – all about time and space, as a communication by A to B across separations of distance and space, with delays of variable durations of time between writing/sending and receiving/reading/replying. It is also temporally-infused with respect to the writing process and the reading process therein. Screen writing erases the signs of one of these processes, writing, and does so at the same juncture that its electronic aspect radically reduces temporal divides in communicative exchanges. Clearly this is significant. But is it a fundamental change, an ontological break, in the way that has been argued here?
There is only one way to settle the question, and this is not through sophistry or abstract argument or critique. It is rather to closely observe the changes unfolding and see where they are taking, not so much letter-writing, as epistolary communication in all of its screen writing manifestations. It is, then, a case of watching out for more space/time innovations and their directionality.
Last updated: 29 September 2016