Retrofit writing

Writing unplugged. This is one of the Bloomberg tablets (no. 76) containing some of the earliest writing from Roman London (discovered 2010-2014) . Though it’s hard to see and ultimately read, the writing says that Ammonicus owes 30 denarii. The Bloomberg tablets predate those from Vindolanda.

The history of human culture is also the history of the technology that humans have developed and used through the ages. Tech is not an extra to the human story, but it has always been at the centre of it. Nothing evolves in a vacuum, but everything depends on everything else.

Until yesterday – in macro-history terms – human technology has always had a high coefficient of retro-fitness, meaning that the function provided by a new technology may be fulfilled, to a lower degree, by an older technology.

Take the example of writing. From writing on papyrus or leaves by hand down to mechanical printing, writing has essentially been the same thing, chemical elements making up dense substances penetrating natural fibres, vegetal or animal. Industrial ink does what the most basic ancient ink recipe can achieve, but better, cheaper and more effective. The printing press achieves what handwriting does, but more quickly, more cheaply and more reliably.

A book may be printed or written by hand on parchment or papyrus. The latest fountain pen or the most advanced ball point pen may easily be replaced by a quill or a calamus. These are retro-fit technologies.

It’s not so much the nature of technology that has changed in the electronic and information age than its totalising claims. For most of human history, it was taken for granted that tech was ancilla hominis, the man’s servant and nothing more. Tech, like other areas of society, would take its place in a human-centric order.

But because the place of technology in society is being re-designed, tech retro-fitness is undermined. If we go back to writing, we see a great shift in the relationship between old and new technologies. There is no denying that electronic media is taking over traditional form, that incorporeality has been so successful that pen and paper are being relegated to specialised niches and nostalgic practices, like writing letters to friends and family or the latest ideas in a deluxe notebook. For most of our writing needs, however, we’ve moved away from physicality.

New tech has yet another trick up its sleeve. Identity theft. The Kindle pretends to be a book, but studies have shown that reading on a Kindle is very different from reading, not to mention studying, a book. The Remarkable 2 is being honest in its pretence, calling itself a ‘paper tablet’, which feels like paper, according to its own tag-line. This type of technology has no patience for retrofitting. It has no room for the analog. It is absolutist,

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