Writer’s unblock

We tend to forget that most writers today are actually typers. They no longer write, but type their work on machines, mechanic or electronic. Don’t worry, I’m not being either pedantic or facetious, and I’m certainly not suggesting that only someone with a pen or quill in hand should be called a writer. I’m merely trying to make a point about the technology of writing.

The printing press solved a distribution problem, but the typewriter and especially the word processor solved a production problem. Writers have always been writers, but since time has always been time, writer output has always been a function of technology and time. The economics of scribal practice (availability, cost, reliability) has always dictated (pun alert!) how much writing writers can do. Against the mourners of the decline of handwriting, I say that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. Admittedly, more junk is being written and published these days than in previous, more chirographic centuries, but a bigger lake means more opportunities for good fishing.

Since there are fewer technological constraints in the face of writing and publishing, the onus is on readers to find good catches. So the main problem now is one of invention in the ancient sense of discovery (from the Latin inventio for finding or discovery). Writing scarcity used to be the equivalent of endogamy – the circulation of the same ideas from writer to writer and reader to reader. With abundance taking over, there is often a sense of helplessness and anxiety. The abundance of written works crashes against the scarcity of time, so readers scramble to make the most of what is out there. The challenge of the information age is that of finding the tools, skills and capacity for making the right choice and making the most of the available material. Technology is unlikely to solve the issue because the decisions and responsibility fall on us, not on the machines we often feel should do the job for us.

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