A New Kind of Writing
Posted by Michael Dickens on August 27, 2010
People have been writing about things for thousands of years. Sumerians wrote cuneiform scripts, Egyptians used hieroglyphs, the Chinese wrote on bones and turtle shells. Over time, more sophisticated writing utensils began to develop. But writing was still difficult. Copies had to be transcribed by hand. In the 15th century Gutenberg invented the printing press, forever changing the way people would relate to written works. It suddenly became much easier to transcribe and distribute many copies of books.
Then, with the advent of the internet, writing changed yet again. It suddenly became possible to transmit text without paper, to transmit it over vast distances in virtually no time at all. First books had to be written by hand; then, with the printing press, they could be quickly copied; now, they can be instantly viewed from anywhere in the world.
Writing isn’t just limited to books, either. Newspapers and magazines have started publishing online. The internet goes even beyond that, though: whole new media of writing have emerged, media which have changed the way we relate to knowledge.
One example of an underrated benefit of the internet is the hyperlink. If you want to refer to something from a physical paper, you have to add a footnote or endnote with a reference to the relevant work. If the reader wants to follow up of the referral, she has to find the referenced work — this could involve a trip to the library, getting a subscription to a magazine or journal, or even more.
The internet solves this problem. Now, in order to refer to another work, you simply post a link to it (provided that your source is somewhere on the web). This vastly simplifies the process of citation. I think this is far more significant than it gets credit for. The ease with which one can verify claims and find additional resources is mind-blowing compared to the old days of physical paper. Not many sites are taking full advantage of this just yet, but we’re getting there. For example, I was reading an article in Psychology Today and noticed that their online articles often contained links to other articles by other authors on the Psychology Today website. That’s just one example of good utilization of hyperlinks.
Hyperlinks are just one of the many benefits of publishing on the internet. Unlike the printing press, the internet is a relatively new invention. We are only just beginning to discover its potential. I would like to discuss one medium in particular: the blog. A blog can be about virtually anything, from cooking to security to sidewalk chalk math to debate (and whatever else the author decides to write about) to creationism and cephalopods to nothing. [Side note: it took me over twenty minutes to decide which examples to use and how to arrange them.] Many newspapers, such as the New York Times, actually hire people to write blogs for them. Some news sites are actually blogs in disguise (or not in disguise).
When blogs started out they were underutilized, but these days they are used to communicate about serious topics. One big advantage to the blog format is its flexibility: it can be just some guy’s daily journal, or it can take the form of a news report. One thing I’d like to see more of, though, is philosophy.
A blog is an ideal format for the development of philosophical ideas. Blog philosophy is very different from sitting all day in a large armchair and musing about the nature of the universe, then publishing something every few years or so (although, admittedly, I do sometimes write blog posts while in an armchair). A blog allows for good discussions and rapid feedback. It can serve as a single place to develop many philosophical ideas, ranging from the humble to the grandiose. A blog, at least the way it’s represented today, is less than ideal for publishing longer works; but it’s great for writing shorter, more concentrated essays. It’s actually very possible that a blog could be adapted to hold something as long as a book; it’s just that there aren’t many people writing books on blogs so the format hasn’t had much opportunity to adapt itself.
My own experience with a blog has been nothing short of lifechanging. It’s remarkable that I am able to come up with an idea and still have it years later, because I published it on my blog. I didn’t used to be much into writing down my ideas, and even if I had been I’m far too messy to be able to find anything I wrote down more than a few months ago. But with a blog, I have been able to formulate my ideas and can see their progression over time. Even the best of my earlier essays were less in-depth than some of my more recent ones, and I’m sure in a few years I’ll think the same thing about the essays I write today. I find it intriguing to be able to go back and trace the evolution of my ideas and my philosophy.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give to anyone interested in philosophy, it would be this: Start a blog.