Are Digital Tools Degrading Writing?

Cyril Hirsh

Stone, clay, papyrus, paper, printing press, typewriter and now the computer screen;  each technical advance was a challenge in its time as hammer and chisel gave way to brush and then to pen and then to the keyboard.  What was the objective of these new technologies?  Man needed to arrange verbal ideas in a permanent way so that other people could appreciate the author’s thoughts. As civilizations grew, wars fought and different religions and philosophies came and went, literacy and education became necessary.  This need filtered down to the lower classes when simple tasks demanded knowledge of reading and simple arithmetic. Compulsory education started in Prussia in 1763.  The rest of the world slowly followed; In 1870, England mandated compulsory education up to the age of 10, raised to 14 in 1918. Newspaper readership bludgeoned and free libraries opened.

In a few brief years, technology has transformed our lives and has introduced a brand-new set of changes undreamt about just a few brief years ago.  The pupil today does not have to go to a specialist library to check facts, she has her smartphone. Encyclopedias are no longer produced because Google and Wikipedia are in the student’s pocket. Some schools are now banning the use of mobile phones as students are staring at screens instead of interacting and communicating with their peers. Does this matter? Will it affect grades? Will people become more introverted?  Games apps are compelling, but is this time spent by today’s teenager at the expense of exercise, games, football, and volleyball?  The youngster, with earphones clamped to his ears, is subject to loud noise.  What is the effect of the constant noise on the brain? These questions are being seriously researched, as parents and the population as a whole are becoming concerned with the effect of this versatile instrument we carry about.  Research has already discovered that notes taken by computer are not retained as long as when taken by hand, and if the notes are taken by computer what will happen to people’s handwriting?

Remember how each technical advance, the printing press and the typewriter, has made writing and distribution easier.  Fifty years ago enormous printing presses would churn out daily papers to be loaded onto trucks and rushed to distributors who would send them to newsagents.  This still happens, but for how long when the latest news is available in your pocket. Email will soon be obsolete through WhatsApp and the ease of video face-to-face communication.

And now, in the early twenty-first century, people are saying that we are in the ‘Late Age of Print’. Books have been written on this subject indicating the challenges facing the industry[1]. Technology has changed the method of arranging communication.  Books can now be downloaded and read on ‘Kindle’, ‘tablet’ or a computer, which for many is easier than carrying a printed book.  Technical articles are illustrated with easily achievable computer-generated graphs and tables which make the student’s life easier. Literary styles are changing as we no longer write long letters to friends describing a beautiful event which will be sent by mail and read days in the future.  When did we last send greetings cards by post?  That was mostly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon.  Emails and WhatsApp have changed the landscape. Brief and concise writing is now the cutting edge.  Abbreviations are now commonplace, lol – Lots of Love.  Emoticon comes from “emotion and icon” and refers to facial expressions represented by a smiling or sad face. Do these icons degrade writing?  Writing expresses ideas; graphs and pictures speed comprehension. Twitter has a size restriction; each tweet entry is limited to 280 characters or less. This focuses on clever use of language, which makes tweets easy to read but also challenging to write.

Digital writing rushes ideas around the world, and the style of writing must change to accommodate the new proliferating audiences.  This does not necessarily degrade writing but maybe it is just simplifying it.  People, whose native language is not the same as the language of the text they are reading, need to understand what is written.  Short simple sentences and paragraphs are easier for a person reading a foreign language.  Headings and sub-headings are useful, in fact necessary, to the reader who is scanning a piece when she has so many other articles to check on her computer. The use of the active form of a verb instead of the passive reduces the complexity of a sentence. The language is not being degraded but being updated and mirrors the pace of digital communication. The English of Shakespeare is very different from the English of today;

it has been upgraded.  shakeseareLanguage is a living entity – think of obsolete phrases we used only 5 years ago.  If we wanted to say something was the best we would exclaim in Hebrew, “esser” – ten.

We have these new tools to use, Excel – Word – Track Changes, so we have to make the best use of them.  Study courses, taken online, require digital understanding. But, how much do we lose by not going to a library, a different environment to write and check facts? Research papers now include hypertext[2] links to cited sources, graphs, and even videos. Grammar assistance is available [3].  Computer literacy is necessary to share digital information. But, we should consider the effect on the individual of this inundation of information coming from TV, radio, and computers.

Before digital tools, the author was more careful as there was no delete button. She would dip her quill into the ink and begin to write. She didn’t want to have to cross out, alter words and dangling modifiers, so she thought carefully and wrote.  Now, the author opens her laptop, presses keys and then ‘F7’ to check for mistakes.  Is the present-day writer better off, or is the writing not of the same standard as it would have been 200 years ago?  Today the author does not have to think so carefully; if she has a brain-wave she can type it and then delete it if necessary.  ‘Cut and Paste’ makes it easy to organize texts.  Does this enhance the quality?  So we arrive at the answer, the quality of the writing depends on the author’s talent.  And, the author’s writing depends on the era in which she lives.  The nineteenth-century lady, with a maid and without television, will enjoy the literary charms as she ponders over a phrase, whether writing or reading.  The gentleman from Mesopotamia, with his hammer and chisel, is not going to waste words when writing complex word-syllable cuneiform scripts.

How does this affect the student and the teacher and the way they write?  The entry into the work-force and complex careers today requires computer skills, literary and creative thinking.  The question is not: ‘Are digital tools degrading writing?’ But, ‘Are we preparing for a change in the digital era of Wikipedia and Facebook?’

A final thought: What will happen to Shakespeare and Wordsworth in the next fifty years?


The Late Age of Print – Ted Striphas   2009

Writing Space – Jay David Bolter  2001

[2] Hypertext is a link to other information, with a simple click a user can quickly jump to different content.

[3]  Perdue Online Writing Lab.


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