Sunday, November 29, 2015

What is 'Digital Writing' anyway?

After I finally got my Alternative CV for Digital Writing Month completed one week late, but now three weeks ago, I fully intended to start participating properly by doing some 'digital writing'. I started writing a blog post containing my thoughts about what 'digital writing' is, in an attempt to find a meaningful justification for the word digital to still be included. Unfortunately, an excessive workload, lack of sleep and the related stress related illness all got in the way and I didn't finish my blog post or take any meaningful further part in Digital Writing Month.

Anyhow, here, right the end of Digital Writing Month, are a few thoughts about what digital writing might be, if it isn't just what we should now call writing.

There is an interesting article by Richard Holden on the OED's public site about the origins and modern use of the word 'digital'. He mentions that we no longer use the term 'digital computer' because that is now the norm for computers and it is the older, but now rare, analog computers which need an adjective for clarity. Likewise he expects words like photography and television default to referring to the digital version - indeed, just a couple of year on from when the article was written, I think they already do, at least here in the U.K. where analog TV broadcasts have ended.

With writing, I feel the shift to digital technology has been both more gradual and more dramatic than the switch with photography and television. Digital photography has changed the way we look at photos to some extent, in that the default is on the computer screen rather than on paper. It is also given ordinary photographers access to photomanipulation techniques which previously would have been only available to professionals or extreme enthusiasts, or just not feasible. However, in practice the main change has been that we take more photographs and that they are more immediate: fundamentally photography has not changed for most of us, although the device used for many people is a phone rather than a camera. With television, digital transmissions have allowed us to have more channels with higher quality pictures. Catch up services like BBC iPlayer mean we can watch programs we missed even if we forgot to video them, and of course the digital format means that when we do video programs the quality is indistinguishable from the original broadcast. However, in practice  most of us till watch television in much the same way, and the change in has less dramatic than the change with photography.

With writing, the start of the digital change started with early word processors in the 1960s, and by the late 70s a lot of professional typing was done on word processors which made two significant changes to the way writing was perceived. It became possible to work on a typed piece of work in a non-linear manner, and easily make changes, so handwritten drafts ceased to be mandatory, and minor errors in finished work became much less acceptable.  Soon after that, personal computers made typing a basic skill, rather than a professional skill, and although those of us have never learned to type properly are usually much slower than the professionals, unlike photography, there is no quality difference between the casual amateur and professional output. Around the same time that personal computers where becoming widespread, Usenet and Gopher provided easy publishing that could reach a wide audience almost instantly.

Up to this point, most of the changes in writing could be considered to be analogues of the changes that come later with photography and television moving into the digital age, but then applications like Hypercard and Toolbook, and then World Wide Web brought the concept of hypermedia out of the academic domain and into widespread use. This was a real change in writing brought about by digital technology, because a piece of text is no longer a single linear piece, but could be part of a much greater non-linear whole. A webpage is much less of an entity than a traditional document, because it can be both linked from and to other parts of the web in such a seamless way that it almost becomes a different page of a single gigantic document.

Other changes that the digital age has given us a much greater ability to write collaboratively, with technology like Google Docs and Hackpad breaking down the traditional barriers to collaboration. Because the most basic formats for digital text such as ASCII or UTF-8 encapsulate almost everything that is important without being complex, it is far easier to share and remix text than other mediums, so cut and paste has become another way in which the digital age has changed writing.

In spite of all this, I still frequently do writing which is not in any way digital, using a pen to make notes that are only for myself. With writing, the change to digital is far less complete (for me at least) than it is with photography and television, however it is also taken much longer. However, at the same time I have never felt a need to describe writing as digital, it just seemed a natural change. The place where I think the digital prefix is justified is when either of the writing process, or the finished work goes well beyond the boundaries of the pre-digital world.