Speed and writing

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The history of writing is many things, but it is also a history of raising the speed bar. From stone and wood to paper and digital, writing went faster and faster. New writing technologies superseded old ones not only because they made records more permanent and reliable, but because they saved time.

Parchment replaced papyrus for many reasons, but also because it made writing faster. Paper made it even faster. Scripts evolved against speed constraints. By the 13th century, the highly calligraphical Gothic scripts were restricted to high-profile books, whereas the greater proportion of functional books (government, legal, academic) began to be written against the clock in cursive hands – economy trumped aesthetics, time upstaged beauty.

When you write faster, you spend the rest of the time reading more and looking up more stuff. When you write faster, you write more. When everyone writes faster, a lot more gets written and a lot more writing becomes available. When scarcity plunges, more people have access to this resource, and it gets cheaper and easier to make the resource available. That creates more time, which in time creates more resources.

There is a growing body of evidence from the 12th century onwards which suggests that Western Europe went through a writing accelerator around that time. Writing speed records were being broken, books expanded, libraries grew. When the printing press came to the game, the race was already on. The speed record was broken once again.


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