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 New writing technologies superseded old ones not only because they made records more permanent and reliable, but because they saved time.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.
Everything today is about user experience.
The standard ISO definition of user experience has it as ‘a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service’.
The earliest case of user experience has to do with books before the age of print. Readers’ engagement with manuscripts is the earliest evidence of what UX means.
Books are at the same time products, systems and services whose use has always been a question of user experience. Of reader experience.
Books have aroused strong emotions in users since the beginning of writing. Magic, affection, disgust, the books have been on the receiving end of most human reactions.
Script developed in part as a result of UX. Page layout evolved as a function of user response to the organisation of information and cultural requirements (education, religion, etc). Most typographical characters and practices from the pilcrow ¶ to the rubric, column, heading, etc, is a result of UX before the printing press. The hyperlink is one of the most advanced editorial devices ever conceived and it was first systematically used in medieval glossed manuscripts to link up the main text on the page to that of other works.
The UX of books is constantly evolving. The way we engage with books is always being redefined. The UX of a papyrus roll is different from that of a vellum codex, and different from a paperback. Yet we cannot imagine the history of writing removed from that of user experience.
It is our experience and the projection of all future experiences that define the way we engage with the objects around us.
The discovery of the concept of ‘error’ was immediately followed by the invention of ‘correction’. The history of error-correction started in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC when the concern for accurate authoritative texts went viral among scholars and people of letters.
This was a particularly acute problem in a culture where texts were copied by fallible hands led by failing eyes(ight). This was a book culture where the desire for philological standards far outstripped the standards themselves.
When accuracy became a warcry among scholars, ideas about how to correct, amend, edit texts were enthusiastically generated.
Correcting a faulty written text was done with a knife and a pen. Erasing text on papyrus or vellum or even paper was easily done by directly interfering with the material support.
We’ve outgrown these predigital tools and we now photoshop, retouch, process or deepfake our texts, images and videos.
One important difference between digital and pre-digital ways of amending material is that of traces. Erasing text in manuscript leaves an indelible trace of its former existence. The erasure is there for all to see.
Animal skin absorbs ink deep within its structure and (e)razing it with a knife doesn’t make it completely disappear. Multispectral imaging is often restorative – which is a way of saying that nothing hidden remains truly hidden.
Palimpsests preserve a record of the deleted past. Acid ink sinks deep within memory. There’s no ‘undo’ button, no deep overwrite.
With digital technology, restoration becomes more challenging. Voices can be deepfaked to say something completely different. Images are altered beyond recognition. Textual differences changed beyond recovery. We live in the age of the ‘undo’, which is a form of amnesia. When Pilate was asked to amend the writing on Jesus’ cross, he refused saying: ‘What I have written I have written’.