Thursday, February 23, 2012

Electronic Writing and Digital Media

 I recently posted a 4 part series consisting of lecture notes for my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media, where I attempt to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context through an overview of the history of writing.  The 4 posts, in order are
  1. Orality and Online Writing 
  2. Reading, Writing, and Rearranging 
  3. Scribes and Scribbles
  4. From Print to Screen
 So, I've since added some more notes specifically on electronic writing via digital media, and I figure since I've already posted the earlier set, why deprive you of the sequel?  So, once more, class is back in session.

A Few Notes on Digital Writing 

When personal computers, originally referred to as microcomputers, first appeared circa 1975, word processing programs were, arguably, the first truly practical use for these machines. In effect, they were an advance over typewriting, where corrections would have to be made after the words were printed, not before. Some of the first word processors were modified typewriters, dedicated to that single function, through the addition of computer memory and displays, but word processing on personal computers soon rendered the typewriter obsolete, so that all that's left of them today is the keyboard layout (known as QWERTY, reportedly set up in the 19th century to keep typists from typing too fast and jamming up the machine, but it's also the case that all of the letters for typing the word "typewriter" are easy to find because they're in the top row). 

 In general, word processing restored the ease of editing and overall freedom associated with handwriting and manuscript, which was mostly lost with typography and only partly reclaimed by the typewriter. Word processing gave writers a great deal of freedom and flexibility, but also made us more self-conscious about writing. Aside from spending inordinate amounts of time picking out fonts and adjusting margins and the like, word processing was associated with a start and stop kind of writing that was not common before, starting to write a line, deleting it, starting again, deleting part of it, inserting a word, re-editing, etc., rather than just writing away and coming back to edit the text later (which I would recommend as a better and easier way to get writing done). Studies of electronic writing suggest that the act of prewriting, that is, thinking about what you're going to write, and composing in your head before putting it down on paper, is short-circuited by electronic writing, which no doubt adds to the dissatisfaction and feeling that we need to edit what we type via the computer. 

 Following the introduction of personal computers, relatively inexpensive printers were made available as an accessory, and while quality varied widely at first, by and large they represented a significant increase in speed over typing, and opened the door to a new concept of desktop printing that became popular in the 80s. Desktop printing meant that individuals could produce what previously had only been possible via professional print shops. 

As word processing software has become increasingly more powerful and sophisticated, it has become increasingly more possible to produce professional looking results through something like Microsoft Word. The best results for desktop publishing, however, require special publishing programs like Adobe Pagemaker, now replaced by Adobe InDesign, or QuarkXPress, to name just two examples. Printing remains an important function of electronic writing, as does the digital simulation of printing, such as the Portable Document Format or PDF file. 

Text adventures, games based purely on written descriptions and typed in commands, along the lines of print-based "choose your own adventure" books, first appeared in the 70s, and became a popular form of software in the 80s. The leading manufacturer, Infocom, referred to their games as interactive fiction. Hypertext programs have been in existence since the 60s, and came into their own during the 80s as well. We'll look at these two formats in more detail later in the semester. Both represent a break from the idea of written works as linear and sequential, towards a new idea of interconnected networks of text. 

The linking together of two or more computers and the creation of computer networks meant that electronic files could be transmitted, downloaded and uploaded, from one computer to another. Online writing could therefore be said to have originated with the forerunner of the internet, the ARPANET, circa 1969. In 1971, the first email message was sent over the network, introducing a new form of electronic writing, and it soon became apparent that this and other forms of electronic text-based messaging introduced a more conversational, informal, virtually oral style of writing (and with it new sets of ambiguities and problems in some situations) in contrast to older forms of writing and letters and memorandums (memos being the format that email was actually based on). 

The creation of a hypertextual interface to the internet through the introduction of the World-Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee circa 1990, marks the beginning of the second stage of online writing, especially after the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, with its graphical user interface. This gave us websites as locations where you could not only download files, but where written information could be displayed as documents in their own right, pages to be read (aided as well by the development of high resolution computer monitors). The internet became highly commercialized as companies rushed to create websites to promote and sell their wares, much to the dismay of computer pioneers, professionals and hobbyists alike, and content became a buzzword as the search was on for material to fill these websites, and attract audiences. The humorist science fiction writer Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) quipped back then: “First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII — and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we've realized it's a brochure.” 

The problem with those websites was that they required extensive knowledge of HTML coding, and therefore were difficult to modify. Typically, we would surf the web, come to an interesting site, take a look through it once, maybe come back another time, and that would be it, we'd be off to check out the next site. That's why it was called surfing the web. There was no reason to ever return because it was unlikely that anything new would be added to the site, but if something new was added, you'd look at it, and then be gone again. As this all came to a head, the e-commerce bubble of the mid 90s burst, and enthusiasm for the web died down. 

Blogging is generally thought to originate during the late 90s, weblog having been coined in 1997, and the short from blog in 1999, but its origins can arguably be traced back to earlier forms of online writing. The revolution in blogging, however, begins at the end of the millennium, with Open Diary launched in 1998, LiveJournal and Blogger (not purchased by Google until 2003) in 1999. 

A key development that made this possible, circa 1997-1998, is the introduction of XML as an alternative to HTML, which allowed for a more flexible kind of programming language for the web. This made possible the creation of software where web content could be updated easily, without recourse to programming languages, using the same tools we use for word processing. Whereas before the web, email and chat was very interactive, democratic, and participatory, the shift in emphasis to static websites threatened to turn the internet into another mass medium, but the new developments associated with XML and blogging restored a good measure of interactivity, and the democratic and participatory sensibility that previously had been dominant. Anyone who wants to can create a blog and publish their writing, making it available to the public on a global scale. And even if you aren't interested in writing your own blog, you can still participate by leaving comments on others' blogs. 

The ways it's been put, by various scholars and writers, is that there is a fundamental conflict between information and communication. This corresponds to the distinction between mass media and interpersonal communication, and even earlier to that between public speaking and dialogue, and therefore the ancient quarrel between the sophists and the philosophers. 

Blogging is considered the first form of what was dubbed Web 2.0 (first in 1999, but not really popularized until 2002), a term that covers all of the dynamic qualities of the web from the personalization used by Amazon and Google to personal publishing via blogs, podcasts, and YouTube and related video hosting sites, to social networking and social media. Indeed, according to some, blogs are a form of social media, due to the ability to leave and respond to comments, and the fact that bloggers are known to respond to each other via their own blog posts, and link to each other. Blogs can be linked to one another in the form of a list, the blogroll, appearing on any given blog, or as a group or circle or network of associated blogs typically with some kind of linking mechanism (which could be as simple as the "Next Blog>>" on the upper left of Blogger blogs (which connects all of the blogs on that site), or in reference to the blogging community as a whole, as the blogosphere. 

Blogging itself has been integrated into some social media sites, MySpace having been a prominent example (although their blogging software has been downgraded in recent years), and their distinctive identity has blurred through the addition of increasingly more sophisticated forms of status updates, and microblogging services, the best known being Twitter. 

Blogs remain the most substantial form of social media and Web 2.0, the most central in the sense that other items that we produce (videos, podcasts, images) can be incorporated into our blogs, and one of the best ways to establish yourself professionally and establish yourself as an active participant within a professional network. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lin(k) in the Armor

So, chances are, you've heard about Jeremy Lin, the Harvard graduate now New York Knicks professional basketball player of Taiwanese descent who came off the bench and out of obscurity with an amazing series of high-scoring, well-played games. 

It's one of those Cinderella stories that sports are famous for, with an added bit of ethnic interest, in that Chinese players are rare in the NBA, especially Chinese-American players.  Indeed, one of my son's high school classmates who is also of Chinese descent, was interviewed by the North Jersey Record on what Lin means to him, as a role model representing their ethnic group.

But of course, Lin's story resonates with all American's, as a real life variant on the Horatio Alger myth of the American dream, that anyone can make it with just a bit of pluck, and luck.  He was an underdog, never expected to succeed in the way that he has, and we just love underdogs. So Lin has become something of a craze--they call it Linsanity, word play being a common feature of sports reporting, and this following the formula used several years ago for NBA star Vince Carter, i.e., Vinsanity.

Indeed, Linsanity is credited with motivating the settlement between Time Warner cable and the Madison Square Garden cable network that had made Knicks games unavailable for subscribers throughout the New York Metropolitan Area (myself included) until now.  (For previous posts on conflicts between content providers and cable television, see All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, Ordering TV À La Carte, and FCC It Now.)

So, I indulged in a bit of my own play in the title of this post, but did so to make reference to the recent scandal that followed as Lin's hot hand and the resulting 7-game winning streak that he led the Knicks to (or Linning streak as some put it) was snapped on Friday night. You see, it seems that the cable sports network ESPN used a headline for this story that turned out to be a bit, well, problematic:

The Huffington Post ran a story by Chris Greenberg with the rather unsympathetic headline, ESPN Racist Jeremy Lin Headline: Network Apologizes For Insensitive Headline For Knicks Loss.  Here's an excerpt from the piece:

Several hours after the Knicks' Lin-spired winning streak was snapped by the New Orleans Hornets, ESPN ran the headline "Chink In The Armor" to accompany the game story on mobile devices. ESPN's choice of words was extremely insensitive and offensive considering Lin's Asian-American heritage. According to Brian Floyd at SB Nation, the headline appeared on the Scorecenter app. The offensive headline was quickly noticed, screen grabs, Twit pics and Instagrams were shared and it began circulating widely on Twitter.

The use of the word "chink" is especially galling as Lin has revealed that this racial slur was used to taunt him during his college playing career at Harvard. After a brief run, the headline was changed to "All Good Things.."

On Saturday morning a statement was posted on the ESPN Media Zone website by Kevin Ota, ESPN's Director of Communications, Digital Media ESPN Communications.
Last night,'s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.
Ota also tweeted about the headline, noting the brief window of time that the headline was visible across mobile platforms.

So, lots here on the power of social media, but we all knew that already, didn't we?  By the way, Greenberg went on to state:  "Perhaps most shocking is the fact that this headline has been used before. In August 2008, Deadspin called out ESPN for using nearly the same racially insensitive headline with a story about the U.S. men's basketball team during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing."  What Greenberg doesn't seem to consider is whether the phrase "chink in the armor" had been used in other contexts as well, contexts not involving anyone not of European descent.  Somehow, I suspect it has.

Look, I am very much concerned with racial slurs.  As a Jew, I have heard on many occasions phrases like jewing someone down, a verb for cheating or bargaining, and have been quite naturally offended by such usages.  And I am the first to call people on the use of gyp and gypped, a slur against the Romani people, one that many people still think of as acceptable, even cute--and while we're at it, get rid of welshing on a bet too.  And I empathize with the older African-Americans who cringe at the way rap stars throw around the old pejorative nigger.

But let's be reasonable here.  The main definition of chink is, "a narrow opening or crack, typically one that admits light."  Synonyms include  crevice, crack, fissure, cranny, rift, cleft, and split.  There's also a second meaning for chink, "a high-pitched ringing sound."  And says the following for chink in one's armor:
A vulnerable area, as in Putting things off to the last minute is the chink in Pat's armor and is bound to get her in trouble one day. This term relies on chink in the sense of "a crack or gap," a meaning dating from about 1400 and used figuratively since the mid-1600s.
So, unlike the other slurs I mentioned, the one that is used for individuals of Chinese descent is a homonym for these other, older uses of the word, or more accurately, these are two different words that happen to share the same sound and spelling.  There is nothing about the racial slur, as far as I know, that is meant to suggest a narrow opening or high-pitched ringing sound.  There is no suggestion in this instance of an Asian warrior dressed in chain mail.  Rather, the slur is an abbreviated nickname for Chinese, one that carries with it an air of disrespect, along the same lines that hebe is used as a derogatory term for Jews, as a shortened form of Hebrew.

I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable in talking about this use of language.  We have to be able to talk about it, don't we?  To study it, examine it, as well as criticize and essentially outlaw it?  It's times like this that Alfred Korzybski's general semantics proves particularly useful, as that discipline requires us to consider our own semantic reactions to stimuli, especially words, and reflect on their meanings and our own personal responses to them, and how those responses might give words power, rather than empowering ourselves to take control of our own minds.

It's like the famous exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, beginning with Humpty making the point that

There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —'
'Certainly,' said Alice.
'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Who is to be master, indeed!  I was a freshman in college and had just recently been introduced to general semantics via Jack Barwind's Introduction to Communication Theory course, when the movie Lenny, a biopic about the life and tragic death of comedian Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman, opened, and I was struck by a part of the opening sequence that involved the use of bigot words for their shock value (unheard of in the very early 1960s), but ending with a plea to take away their power by confronting them.  I'd embed the clip, but YouTube won't allow it, so you have to watch it over on there, go ahead, do it, just come back here when you're done:  Lenny Bruce hard words.

And while I'm on the subject, let me go off on a slight tangent and mention that the word niggardly, which I happen to like for its antique quality, bears no relation to the racial slur that I know you were thinking of.  Here's a write up on it, in response to an inquiry, from a website called The Straight Dope:

the origin of "niggard" is unclear, but not its timeline, which predates the N-word in the English language by a couple hundred years at least. "Niggard" comes up as early as Chaucer, late 14th century. The most commonly speculated origin is Scandanavian nig/Old Norse hnoggr, meaning miserly. Don't know how much faith you want to put in Indo-European roots, but one meaning of the root ken- is conjectured to relate a family of words with a connotation implying closing, tightening, or pinching (the family of related words is hypothesized to include such n-words as nap, nibble, nod, nosh, neap, nip). The racial slur "nigger," on the other hand, doesn't enter the lexicon until the 1500's, first as "neger" or "neeger," obviously from the same root as the French negre and Spanish negro, words for the color black, which are derived from the Latin niger.

Likely, your conversation on the word occurred about the same time as much of the country's, when poor David Howard made the national news for use of this term. Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who described his own administration of a particular fund as "niggardly" in the presence of two of his staff members. He has since been quoted as saying he "immediately apologized" for making what might be misinterpreted as a "racist remark," but the damage had been done. Rumors circulated that he had in fact used a racial epithet (one attribution claimed he said, "I'm tired of all these niggers calling me with their problems"), and he eventually resigned. Eventually the mayor, after determining the facts, asked him to rescind his resignation, and he rejoined the administration, albeit in another position. The D.C. mayor's web page lists him as the mayor's scheduler. 

The moral of the story is, this is what happens when people insist on relying on folk etymology and speculation. Howard was pressured to resign by people who, as columnist Tony Snow put it, "actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance." There are hundreds of words in English, or any language, that sound similar--or even identical--to others, but have completely unrelated origins and definition. Sure, you don't want to offend anyone deliberately, but there's a fine line between not being a jerk and examining every word you speak for nuances that might be misinterpreted by people who don't understand them. If there's one thing the Straight Dope has taught me, political correctness should always take a back seat to actual correctness.

So, how about a plea for Lin(guistic)sanity?  And speaking of Lin, it turns out that the ESPN headline was preceded by a bad call on the part of one of the cable network's sportscasters:

And over on the story was reported under the headline, ESPN Uses "Chink in the Armor" Line Twice UPDATE- ESPN Fires One Employee Suspends Another.  In case you were wondering, it was the sportscaster who was suspended, the headline writer who was fired.  This perhaps says something about the relative value of writers and on-air talent, but maybe also something about the differences between the two different media.  As the Forbes columnist Greg McNeal explains,
the headline is a different matter.  As anyone who has worked in digital media knows, the headline is what draws attention and hits.  Editors and writers try to maximize visitors and shock value with their headlines (check out mine, it got you here didn’t it?).  Unlike an on-air comment, most writers and editors obsess over the headline even after they click the publish button.  So my sense of things is that whoever posted the headline thought about it, giggled, and clicked publish.  In fairness to the writer/editor, the term “chink in the armor” has been used over 3,000 times on, but just because it is a frequently used term doesn’t absolve the writers and editors of responsibility to use common sense. 

Now, in all fairness, we have no idea what went through the headline writer's mind, how much time he had or took to come up with that headline, or what his motives might have been, but McNeal is absolutely correct that the headline is a different matter, or as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message.  And I also agree that there is a need for common sense, and perhaps more importantly, common sensitivity, sensitivity to the context of the headline, sensitivity to the need to show respect to all human groupings and identities.  Is an apology in order?  Absolutely!  Should a writer be fired for this, assuming it was an accident? I'm not so sure.

But the point that I wanted to get to is one involving orality and literacy, appropriately enough given that this year, 2012, is the centenary of Walter Ong's birth.  The question was raised on the Media Ecology Association's discussion list by J. Martinez, and here is part of my response:

I once read an article in a communication journal on how sportscasters rely on clichés, more so when there's a lot of action in the game, and it struck me that calling a game has some similarity to oral composition/performance (they are one and the same in oral culture). It's not epic poetry, but given that some of the same dynamics are in play, sportscasters rely on formulas and clichés to stitch together their spiel.  
So it's not just that it's harder to pay attention and "focus" when listening than when reading, that there's little or no time to contemplate the meaning of the words as they're flowing by, and that it's harder to keep them in memory when they're quickly replaced by new talk, nor is it only the fact that much of the language is filler used to keep the performance flowing rather than to communicate anything informative, but it's also that a phrase like "chink in the armor" as an oral cliché or formulaic expression is treated as a whole chunk, as chink-in-the-armor, rather than parsed into separate words.  
In Orality and Literacy, Ong explains how in oral cultures there isn't even the conception of "word" common to literate cultures, but rather something more like "vocalization" or "utterance" which could refer to a single syllable or an entire poem or song.  It's only with writing that words are conceptualized as entirely separate and discrete symbols, each with its own separate meaning that exists independently of any pragmatic context.  When written, "chink" appears as an isolated word rather than a part of a larger whole, it allows for other individual, decontextualized meanings, notably the unintentional racial slur, to be ascribed to it.

So, the word as written is much more problematic than the word as spoken--even though the content appears to be the same, it is not.  Martinez also brought up the case of Rush Limbaugh (not Lin-baugh), whose brief stint as a commentator on ESPN was cut short when he brought his conservative commentary about racial preferences to a discussion of NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb:

My response to this was

in the case of Limbaugh, which is less interesting in my opinion, when his comments were made as part of a flow of sports talk, it's quickly passed over.  But when it's recorded, isolated, and replayed, this allows for reflection and criticism, not to mention magnification of whatever is said, and that makes his comments intolerable.  The irony is that he was done in by the same technology that made football successful on television in the first place, the instant replay.  Without instant replay, football has too little action to be really interesting to viewers (an early study of a Super Bowl game by Michael Real clocked the ball in play at something like 8 minutes).

I also went on to note the similar fate that befell Don Imus:

So, here's how I ended my response:

A similar case, I would add, is that of radio "shock jock" Don Imus when he employed a bit of racist/sexist humor talking about the Rutgers women's basketball team in his MSNBC simulcast.  The internet, and especially YouTube, is functioning as a mirror to television, leading to more critical reflection and self-conscious examination of the broadcasting medium.

McLuhan and Ong have emphasized the oral/aural qualities of broadcasting, and while some of what we hear is scripted, and therefore governed by the written word, allowing for self-conscious editing and self-censorship, and some of it is recorded and then edited as video and/or audio in various ways, live television and radio relies on a degree of spontaneity that will always allow for the possibility of error, and accident, and therefore offense.  Even with delays and oversight and careful understanding of what is acceptable, we never know what might bubble up from an individual's unconscious mind, what monsters from the id might appear.

But without the spontaneity of the live, the immediate, the unplanned and unexpected, without the possibility of novelty, mistake, and failure, is it possible that we'd be losing something exciting and vital about our media experience?

On the other hand, there's always Twitter... 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt

You may recall my postings last November and December on Hannah Arendt, and if not you can review them in my culminating post, Arendt Come Due, where I also explained how I was invited to share my post on the blog of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, as a guest blogger.

So, following that exchange, I was also asked if I would participate in their "Quote of the Week" series, choosing a Hannah Arendt quote and then providing some commentary about it.  Well, I was happy to do so, and reprise my role as a guest blogger, and I chose a quote from Arendt's collected Jewish Writings, specifically from a 1944 essay entitled, "The Jew as Pariah".  In that essay, she discusses three Jewish writers, Franz Kafka, Bernard Lazare, and Heinrich Heine, and one very prominent non-Jew, Charlie Chaplin.

Now it just so happens that I am a great admirer of Chaplin as an actor, filmmaker, artist, and as a human being, and I found what Arendt had to say about him absolutely fascinating, and I'll get to that soon, but perhaps to set the stage for the post, you might want to take a look at one of Chaplin's early shorts, in case you've never seen it before, The Immigrant, from 1917:

Now, you can take a look at the post I wrote over on the Hannah Arendt Center blog, and from there browse through the other material collected on their website, but I'll also reproduce the little essay here, which they entitled The Cinematic Jew as Pariah.  It starts with the quote, and then continues on with my commentary:

"While lack of political sense and persistence in the obsolete system of making charity the basis of national unity have prevented the Jewish people from taking a positive part in the political life of our day, these very qualities, translated into dramatic forms, have inspired one of the most singular products of modern art—the films of Charlie Chaplin.  In Chaplin the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures—not because he was a modern Merry Andrew, but because he represented the revival of a quality long thought to have been killed by a century of class conflict, namely, the entrancing charm of the little people."

--Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as Pariah:  A Hidden Tradition" (1944)

The image of Charlie Chaplin's signature character, the Little Tramp, is an icon recognized throughout the world, one that remains powerful where those of his contemporaries, for example his partners in United Artists, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., have faded from popular consciousness.  Moreover, Chaplin is widely recognized for his comedic brilliance, and beyond that, for his artistic genius as an actor, director and composer.  Largely forgotten within the public mind, however, is the close association between Chaplin and Jewish identity, regarding both the actor and the character he portrayed.  But to early 20th century audiences in the United States and Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Little Tramp was recognized as a Jewish character type, a popular culture stereotype with origins in the 19th century, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and (dare I say it?) modern times.  Regarding himself, Chaplin never corrected misconceptions about his gentile ancestry, saying that to do so would "play directly into the hands of anti-Semites," while also taking pride in the fact that one of his great grandmothers was a Romani (aka Gypsy), and more generally he was outspoken in defense of all of the little people, the lower classes, the poor and the downtrodden.  On the big screen, he was the Little Tramp, but in real life, as a human person and a champion of the humane and the humanistic, he was a giant.

Hannah Arendt identifies Chaplin's Little Tramp as something more than a Merry Andrew or clown, but as an example of a specific character type she refers to as the Jew as pariah.  The term pariah is typically defined as outcast, which carries a more negative connotation than that of exileExile, in turn, is a status long associated with the Jewish people in particular, but today incorporated into the broader, and more neutral category of diaspora.  As a wanderer, sojourner, or immigrant, the outcast becomes the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, and also the barbarian (in ancient Greece, barbaros referred to anyone who was not Greek, not a citizen); in philosophical terms, the outcast is the other.  The outcast is also the out-caste, the individual who is not a part of the existing social structure, who has no status or position, who is stateless or homeless, or jobless.  The myth of the nation is one of blood ties, of an extended conception of kinship, of tribalism writ large.  Against such cultural foundations, political reformation derived from Enlightenment rationality provided thin cover indeed.  And it is in this context that the unique nature of the American experiment stands out, and I find it interesting at this juncture to juxtapose the words of another Jewish woman, one who was a native New Yorker of the 19th century:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This famous poem is "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, as part of a campaign to raise money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and later added to the site of the monument (with the effect of permanently changing the meaning of the monument from its original intent as a political statement).  Lazarus, a poetic protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had awakened from her comfortable middle class youth to a profound social consciousness as she watched the influx of European immigrants to the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn, and in particular was moved by the arrival of vast numbers of European Jews seeking to escape the persecution and pogroms that accompanied their pariah status, becoming a proto-Zionist in her own right.

Arendt may well have viewed Lazarus as idealistic, perhaps even politically naïve, but of course it was in the United States that Arendt found a safe haven from Nazi persecution, and it was here that she made her home, just as it was the nation that welcomed Charlie Chaplin as an English immigrant, where he found opportunity for advancement and success, becoming a Hollywood star and also an entrepreneur, as a partner in the founding of the United Artists film company.  This is not to deny the fact that Chaplin was also a victim of McCarthyism, finding himself exiled from the United States in 1952 on account of his politics, and settled in Switzerland, nor is it meant to discount the fact that Arendt was one of the lucky few to be permitted entry, whereas the vast majority of European Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust were not allowed to emigrate to the US.  And there certainly is no denying the multitude of social ills that have existed and persisted in American society.  But I would say that it is here in the United States that pariahs have come to find parity, and I would go so far as to say that this nation is truly exceptional in that regard.

But parity does not come easy.  As Arendt describes the environment that the Little Tramp inhabits, "Chaplin's world is of the earth, grotesquely caricatured if you will, but nevertheless hard and real.  It is a world from which neither nature nor art can provide escape and against whose slings and arrows the only armor is one's own wits or the kindness and humanity of causal acquaintances."  But it is a world where the little people can outwit their opponents, where strangers can become friends, and outcasts can find love.  Authority figures are intimidating, and need to be avoided, but at the same time Chaplin conveys, as Arendt puts it, "the time-honored Jewish truth that, other things being equal, the human ingenuity of a David can sometimes outmatch the animal strength of a Goliath."  And in the American audience, Chaplin found that even Goliath's own people would root for David to beat the odds and overcome his more powerful opponent, because, as the saying goes, Americans love the underdog.  The rejection of British sovereignty and the embrace of the principles of democracy and equality resulted in an American culture that is fundamentally anti-elitist, and sympathetic to outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws.

Arendt characterizes Chaplin's variation on the Jew as pariah character type as the suspect, meaning that he is always under suspicion, always presumed guilty by the authorities unless (and maybe even if) proven innocent.  The presumption of guilt may well lead to the suspect being accused, arrested, convicted, and/or punished for crimes never committed.   And even for authority figures who are willing to concede the possibility of error, we hear the rejoinder that this suspect must be guilty of something, even if it is not the particular crime in question.  The stigma of collective guilt being assigned to the other, of scapegoating, is a familiar one, as is the experience of prejudice and profiling, as the role of pariah as suspect has been played by many people, by many peoples, over the years.

But across all of its manifestations, the pattern remains more or less the same.  At times, however, it may expand into a paranoid strain of existence.  Under extreme conditions, the police or military will consider all civilians to be suspect, and those in authority will consider all of their subordinates to be suspect.  Under authoritarian systems, a culture of suspicion is established from the very top on down, and with the advent of the totalitarianism that Arendt so incisively analyzed, this culture of suspicion permeates every sector of society.

Arendt notes that whether guilty or innocent, for the suspect, the punishment is not commensurate with the crime, that the severity has more to do with the individual's social status than with the nature of the wrongdoing (and again, we are all too familiar with the social, economic, and racial divides that characterize prison populations).  The fundamental injustice of society is demonstrated by this lack of proportion, and all the more so by the punishment of pariahs who are innocent of the crime in question, and perhaps innocent altogether.  But this lack of justice cuts both ways, as the outcast is able to get away with breaking the law and flouting authority in situations where more established members of society cannot.  The result is an odd, and for Chaplin often comic combination of fear, and impudence.  This coupling of nervousness and nerve, according to Arendt, "is a worried, careworn impudence—the kind so familiar to generations of Jews, the effrontery of the poor 'little Yid' who does not recognize the class order of the world because he sees in it neither order nor justice for himself."

Writing in the dark times of the Second World War, Arendt ends her consideration of Chaplin on a pessimistic note, reflecting on the waning popularity of Chaplin's motion pictures, and especially the failure of his 1940 film, The Great Dictator, to achieve popular appeal and influence public opinion regarding the war in Europe.  She pointed to economics and politics as the reason why Chaplin fell out of favor, but Arendt might have been better served by reflecting on the fact that Chaplin's success was based on the medium of the silent film, and arguably peaked with the release of The Gold Rush in 1925.  The introduction of the talkies in 1927, with Al Jolson's cantorial performance in The Jazz Singer, made Chaplin's style of comedy obsolescent, and his resistance to the new medium, while commendable in regard to artistic integrity, defied the wildly popular fascination with the human voice.  Chaplin's talent was such that he was capable of making the transition to the new format while maintaining the integrity of his Little Tramp character, as can be seen in his masterly work on his 1936 motion picture, Modern Times, which incorporates the speech of other characters, often heard remotely through speakers, and which ends with Chaplin himself singing a song comprised of nonsensical lyrics, thereby maintain his nonverbal presence.

The problem with The Great Dictator, where Chaplin plays a dual role as a parodic version of Hitler and a persecuted Jewish barber, is not that Chaplin speaks, or that he addresses the audience directly at the end of the film, but that he breaks the comedic frame of the film and preaches to the audience.  However well intentioned his motives, however eloquent his speech, however much the audience may have agreed with his sentiment, his attempt to underline and drive home the implicit message of the film disrupted the medium of comedy, and undermined the effectiveness of the satire, a weapon far more potent than any direct, persuasive message could be.  The audience did not turn away out of a lack of sympathy for the little people.  Rather, it was Chaplin, in stepping out of his role as the Little Tramp, who abandoned his audience.

Chaplin's decline might be contrasted to the rise of another variation on the Jew as pariah in American film comedy, that of the Marx Brothers.


Harpo specifically portrayed a silent, Chaplinesque character, while Chico captured the stumbling, comic malapropisms of non-native, immigrant speech.  But it was Groucho who introduced a new form of wit and fast-talking, linguistic dexterity, filled with puns, Yiddishisms, and a kind of brash impudence that reflected a newfound confidence and integration into society on the part of the pariah, from outcast now to working class, and later on to the insecure middle class neuroses of Woody Allen, and more recently perhaps to the defiant posture of Adam Sandler.

The fulfillment of the Zionist dream in 1948 signaled an end to exile for the Jewish people, but it might be argued that, for some within in the community of nations, pariah status was transferred to the State of Israel.  In the United States, and elsewhere in the western world, the specific image of the Jew as pariah has become less and less familiar.  And more generally, if we have not fully eliminated the status of pariah, of outcast, of the other from our culture, we certainly have witnessed enormous progress in social justice for all over the past half century, and have surely come closer to achieving that goal than ever before.  If we still fall short of the ideals expressed by Emma Lazarus, the Mother of Exiles continues to hold her lamp up high to shed light against dark times.

And in light of the waning of the pariah as a character type, is Charlie Chaplin and the Little Tramp destined gradually to decline in popular relevance and fade from collective memory, fulfilling Arendt's pessimistic conclusion in 1944 that the little people now wanted a Superman character to identify with?  I believe that she would be pleased with the alternative that I would like to suggest, that the comedy of the pariah represents what Joseph Meeker called the comedy of survival, a narrative in which the little person as protagonist seeks merely to get by in a hostile environment, to stay out of trouble, and hopefully achieve balance and harmony with one's surroundings.  The comedic hero does not try to master or control the environment, for that would represent hubris, and ultimately result in tragedy, in bringing about one's own doom.

According to Meeker, tragedy as a narrative form is peculiar to western cultures, and I would add, invoking the media ecology of Marshall McLuhan, that it is closely associated with the literate mindset, one that favors individualism, and the separation of self from other and from the environment, and the expansion of the individual ego.  In contrast, comedy, as a narrative mode, is common to all cultures, and from a media ecology perspective is associated with preliterate oral culture, and postliterate electronic culture.

In the comedic mode, what we see is an exercise in humility, in knowing your limitations and living within them.  In other words, comedy reflects an ecological ethic, and more than that, an ecological mindset, one that is very much in keeping with the ecological concern of our electronic age, both in the environmentalist sense, but also more generally in the growing adoption of a systems view of the world.  The ecological values of balance, harmony, and survival are values that Arendt would recognize as embodied by Charlie Chaplin's variation on the Jew as pariah.  The Little Tramp with his "entrancing charm of the little people," may yet serve as an icon of New Age consciousness, post-civilization lifestyle, and a new, sustainable way of life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

From Print to Screen

And now for the 4th of the 4 part series consisting of my lecture notes for my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media that I'm teaching this semester.  The notes, which are meant to be read in lieu of listening to me lecture in class, are intended to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context through an overview on the history of writing.  If you want to read them in order, begin with  Orality and Online Writing, from there proceed to Reading, Writing, and Rearranging, and then on to Scribes and Scribbles, and then meet me back here for the final installment.  Okay, ready now class? Once more, unto the breach, or something like that...

Comments on the History of Writing Part IV: 
The Print Revolution 

The practice of printing has its roots in prehistory, as for example a shell could be used to make essentially identical imprints on a surface over and over again. An important early from of printing came not long after the introduction of the Greek alphabet, in the neighboring kingdom of Lydia, where the first coins were minted. Printing on paper was invented in China long before Gutenberg, and printing images carved from wood blocks was a common practice in Europe for centuries. 

The big breakthrough came in the 15th century when there were, reportedly, 7 different individuals working in 7 different cities in Germany to develop a method of automating the copying of books and documents. Demand had risen steadily after the introduction of paper in Europe, which was associated with the commercial revolution that led to the Renaissance in Italy. New paints used by Renaissance painters became the basis of a new kind of ink used in printing, which was necessary because innovations in metallurgy made it possible to create metal type. The Chinese had long ago developed a printing press with moveable type, but the type was made out of wood, and therefore not very durable, plus they didn't have the alphabet, which meant that they had to have a great many different blocks to rearrange, whereas we only needed a relatively limited number (less than 100, when counting upper and lower case, numerals, and punctuation marks). 

The press part of the printing press was adapted from the wine press, and Gutenberg gets the credit, although there are competing claims, and no one knows exactly when it was introduced, because no one kept track of these things until after printing was invented. But we do know that the 1450s was the beginning of a revolution in printing that swept through Europe, and elsewhere, and gave us the modern world. The introduction of printing is associated with the rise of nationalism, individualism, democracy, modern science, and the Protestant Reformation, to name a few major developments. 

McLuhan noted that printing was the first mechanization of a handicraft, and in this way opened the door to mechanization and eventually industrialization. Printing made the production of books and other documents into a real business, so that authors took credit for their work, whereas they didn't bother in manuscript culture, and eventually copyright legislation was created to protect printers from piracy on the part of their rivals (this was the introduction of the concept of intellectual property, something not physical like an object, or real estate; patent and trademark law followed this model). 

Printing made widespread publicity possible, publicity meaning to make public, and in fact printing led to the creation of a reading public, along with what was called a republic of letters. Advertising was a byproduct of printing, and the title pages of books originated as an advertisement for the printer, so that to this day you see the name of the publisher listed there. 

Printing introduced the idea of mass production, and for the first time books and other written materials were produced in multiple, identical copies. With the same material appearing on the same page in every copy, creating a table of contents and an index became worthwhile, and even page numbers were not typical of hand-copied manuscripts. 

Standardization spread to other aspects of writing, including spelling and grammar (there was no "correct" spelling or grammar before typography). Also the use of alphabetic order became commonplace, along with the printing of reference works such as dictionaries, and encyclopedias. 

Perhaps most important of all, the printed text became fixed, unchangeable, closed in this sense, as compared to the manuscript which could be altered from one copy to the next. This served to eliminate "scribal corruption" but could also broadcast errors, a famous early example being what became known as the "wicked bible," where the word not was omitted from the 7th commandment, "thou shalt not commit adultery." 

Typographic fixity and closure is in many ways reversed by electronic writing, where edits, changes, and updates to the text are easily made. The main problem with citing Wikipedia is not that the information can't be trusted, it's been shown to be fairly accurate, but rather that the page you cite can be changed soon after you cite it, and changed many times over, so that there is no way to go back and check on your citation with assurance that it's the same document. 

In medieval Europe, most manuscripts were written in Latin, a dead or learned language, so to be able to read you had to learn to read and then also learn Latin, and then possibly Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic as well. Very few works were written in the vernacular. Printers, looking to expand their market, began to publish in the vernacular, fueling rising literacy rates, and also the new cultural trend of nationalism that went hand in hand with the establishment of the nation-state in early modern Europe. 

The first printed books were made to look like handwritten manuscripts, that's all they knew after all, but eventually they moved from calligraphic types of fonts, e.g., gothic lettering, to more readable typefaces, which also made it easier to read, and to read quickly. Silent reading was all but unknown before printing, but afterwards became commonplace, and reading and writing became increasingly more divorced from the acoustic world, often to the detriment of good writing. 

As printing moved past its earliest stages, printers began to pay attention to the look of the page, the layout, as printing has been characterized as producing the exactly repeatable pictorial statement. While manuscripts might be decorated as artworks, and calligraphy could be quite beautiful, writing by hand makes it difficult to plan and edit layout and design of pages, whereas this becomes a new feature of the production of print media. 

And not long after the introduction of typography, engraving using metal plates instead of wood carvings led to a revolution in the printed image. Along with images, diagrams and tables became feasible, as they were previously difficult to copy without error by hand. Printing made the visual display of data commonplace, the outline as the most basic example, and as an outgrowth of that, the textbook. 

Printing introduced a variety of new forms. Prose became commonplace, including essays. A new category called fiction was introduced, for a new idea, writing that claims to have no relationship to any person or event in reality (although one of the key criteria for evaluating fiction became realism). The main form of fiction, the novel was introduced (many refer to Cervantes's Don Quixote as the first of that new form), and also the short story. Printers produced many other media aside from books, such as catalogs, calendars, blank forms, pamphlets, broadsheets, etc., and eventually developed the notion of the periodical, i.e., newspapers and magazines, print media published regularly in serial format. 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a variety of innovations contributed to the evolution of printing, especially the introduction of steam power (printers mainly worked the press by hand previously) in the early 19th century which vastly increased our ability to mass produce print media, along with many innovations in printing images, including photographs, and including the addition of color. What might be called the Age of Gutenberg, which is to say the modern age, lasted over 5 centuries, and shaped many of our assumptions about writing and publishing. 

Even the addition of the telegraph, while providing reports to be published in newspapers, led to a breakdown in linearity, so that newspaper articles began to use the pyramid structure, with the most important information in the first paragraph, the second most important in the second paragraph, etc., rather than telling the story from beginning to middle to end. With the speed-up of reporting, information coming in instantaneously over the wires, newspaper front pages began to look like what McLuhan referred to as mosaics, nonlinear bits and pieces of items, many continued on another page. There is no way to read the newspaper from beginning to middle to end (if you start reading one column, and the story is continued on another page, do you go to that page, or continue to the next column?). Look at the newspaper front page, and you see the predecessor of the typical website layout. Just this background addition of electronic communication changed things dramatically. 

Electronic writing, and especially writing for online media, extend some aspects of typography, the reach of publicity for example, and concern with layout. Relatively recent shifts towards the newspaper's mosaic, use of headlines, short paragraphs and sentences, also can be seen in online writing. But the new medium reverses other aspects of online writing, favoring a more "oral" sensibility, but with a new twist of being conversational and personal, rather than formal and formulaic. And it retrieves elements of scribal culture such as variation, what we would call plagiarism, collaboration, etc., and even scrolling from the ancient world. And it introduces entirely new elements too, such as the hyperlink.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scribes and Scribbles

Well, time for Part 3 in my 4 part series of lecture notes on the history of writing, prepared for my Writing for Online Media online class that I'm teaching this semester at Fordham University, the purpose of this overview being to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context.  The first installment was posted as Orality and Online Writing, and the second as Reading, Writing, and Rearranging.  

And now for the third, I take a quick look at the materiality of writing and evolution of scribal culture.  So here we go class, it's time to begin.

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Part III: Of Pages and Books 

The materials we use for writing also make a difference. One media ecology theorist, Harold Innis, distinguishes between heavy media, which are durable but difficult to transport, and light media which are perishable but easy to move from one place to another. Writing in stone can last for millennia, but you can get a hernia trying to carry it around. The Sumerians used clay tablets, which also were heavy and durable. The Egyptians developed a writing surface made from reeds, called papyrus, that was lightweight and easy to transport. 

Writing on clay tablets required a stylus to make impressions, and it was difficult to make elaborate characters in that way, so cuneiform is made up of relatively simple, geometric shapes. Writing on papyrus, the Egyptians used paint and brush, allowing for the elaborate characters we know as hieroglyphics. The materials we use influence the kinds of writing that we get. No one wrote a novel by chiseling onto a stone monument, at least as far as I know. 

Elaborate, decorative writing styles, such as calligraphy, makes for beautiful art objects, but slow down reading speed, and are not conducive to widespread literacy. The medieval illuminated manuscript is beautiful to look at, but hard to decipher. In China, where ideograms had an intrinsic pictorial quality, traditionally no distinction was made between poetry and painting, they were one unified art form. 

Aside from papyrus, parchment was also used in the ancient world. It was a stronger material, heavier and more durable than papyrus, made out of animal skin. That's why diplomas were known as a sheepskin, they were originally made from parchment. And then there is paper, lightweight like papyrus, originally made from linen, invented in China and eventually introduced to Europe (through innovations in linen manufacture, European use of paper coincided with the introduction of underwear). It wasn't until the late 19th century, due to a shortage of linen, that a method of making paper from wood pulp was adopted. 

Back in the ancient world, papyrus sheets were glued together, and rolled up as scrolls, held horizontally (not vertically as they often are depicted in cartoons). These were the first books, originating in Egypt, and eventually spreading to Greece via the Semitic traders from Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon), from whom the Greeks adopted the alphabet, calling it Phoenician writing, from which we get the term phonetic. And from the Phoenician town of Byblos, the Greeks derived their word for book (and we get bible, bibliography, etc.), which originally referred to a single scroll. Using scrolls, you could only move forward or back in a very linear fashion, it was difficult to move around from one part of the document to another, kind of like how with videocassettes we have to fast forward or rewind, and have no random access to scenes the way we do with DVDs. 

So scrolls were naturally limited in length, for very practical reasons, and, for example, the books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc., were literally separate books at one time, separate scrolls (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). You also find that ancient Greek texts of some length were divided into Book I, Book II, etc., because they actually were written on more than one scroll. Later, when bound books were introduced, they became effectively chapters or sections of the volume, so that "book" came to mean both the physical volume and in this older sense, a part of the volume. And sometimes the old sense would be retrieved for stylistic reasons, so for example Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a single novel, but the publisher decided to publish it in 3 volumes, but it actually is subdivided into 6 "books" which are sections made up of several chapters each. So if you buy a copy of The Lord of the Rings in one volume, you have one book in the sense of a physical volume, made up of 3 books as they were originally published as separate volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), but also divided into six sections that Tolkien called books, implying in his fictional history that they once existed as separate scrolls or volumes themselves, but those books really only exist as a stylistic subdivision. 

Scrolls could also be made of the more durable material of parchment, and it was during the Roman era that parchment pages were also bound together in the form of a codex, which was the first bound book, a new format that allowed for random access of individual pages. This new medium was adopted by the early Christian church, and became the basis of the medieval manuscript. As you may know, those manuscripts were quite large, heavy, bound in leather and sometimes metal as well. All documents had to be written by hand, and copied over and over again in various ways, sometimes via dictation. Mistakes were made, this was sometimes known as scribal corruption, but it is also true that scribes felt free to change the text as they saw fit, leave out parts they didn't like, add in whatever they wanted to, including incorporating comments others wrote in the margins. Even if just copying the text, no two copies would be exactly alike, and it was ok to create a new work that incorporated the work of older works. There was no sense of plagiarism or copyright, or of creating an entirely new, original work. Copies were generally made for personal use, or for the use of a small group. The making and selling of books was not a business. 

The invention of printing changed all that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reading, Writing, and Rearranging

So, as noted in my previous post, Orality and Online Writing, this is the 2nd of a 4 part series, where I'm posting here the lecture notes that I distributed in written form to the online class that I'm teaching this semester at Fordham University, on Writing for Online Media.  As I noted last time, my goal here is to provide an overview of the history of writing, in order to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context.

In this second installment, I go over the origin and evolution of writing systems, and their impact.  Okay now, settle down, take your seats, and let's get started.

Comments on the History of Writing 
Part II: Writing Systems 

Back about 30,000-20,000 years ago, there was what some call a creative explosion, the appearance of primitive art, including the famous cave paintings you no doubt have heard about. Up to this time, there is little or no evidence of visual representation. This perhaps represents an important turning point in our capacity for symbolic communication, maybe also the development of language, or an expansion of oral tradition through the appearance of mnemonic devices such as meter and formulas. But it is important to stress that pictures are not writing. Pictures do not make statements, or arguments, and their meaning is rarely clear until words are used to explain them, and putting different captions to the same picture can change their meaning radically. Pictures can illustrate statements, can be used for evidence, they can describe in ways that words cannot, but they are concrete, they are what they are. 

Applied to blogs today, a rule for our class is, never let pictures stand on their own. Always provide words of explanation, introduce them, and provide some additional comments following them. 

Also back in prehistory, human beings developed identifying marks, like branding of cattle, iconic symbols that function as names, again on a very concrete level. And we developed means of counting by making notches or knots or marks. Systems of marks and notations eventually evolved into true writing about 5500 years ago, the first writing system being cuneiform, invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. What I mean by true writing, based on the scholarship of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others, is a system of visual marks or characters that are used to represent spoken language. By the translating an aural from into a visual one in this way, words gained a measure of permanence that they lacked in speech. Words could be preserved, viewed and reviewed, examined and analyzed. It was the most important development in all of human history, one that goes hand in hand with what we call civilization, as opposed to tribal society and culture. 

Cuneiform was invented by accountants, as a means of taking inventories and keeping records. No one thought to write down stories at first, oral tradition worked perfectly fine for that purpose. Writing was used for an entirely new purpose of making lists, an inventory, a census, a genealogy, a chronicle of edicts and events, a set of instructions to follow, etc. These were entirely new forms developed through a new medium of communication. 

The first writing systems used one character to stand for an entire word. This was the obvious way to represent language. The problem is that it requires thousands of different characters, tens of thousands to completely cover a spoken language. Obviously, this would make learning how to read and write a difficult and time-consuming task, one that could only be undertaken by small, elite groups, typically for vocational purposes. That's how it worked in Mesopotamia, and the same was true for Egyptian hieroglyphics (which means priestly writing). Similar systems later appeared in Crete, Greece, India, and China, and also Mesoamerica. Terms like pictographic, ideographic, and more generally logographic are used to refer to this type of writing, and Chinese writing is still largely logographic to this day. The reason for this is that Chinese dialects are actually different languages, as different as say French and Spanish and Portuguese are from one another, and while it is hard, sometimes impossible, to understand a different dialect when spoken, the written word can be understood across linguistic barriers. 

We ourselves use logographic symbols for numbers, and if you think about it, we don't really pronounce a 3 or 6 or 9, and you can put any language's sound to those characters, so a 3 can be a trois, or a tres, or drei, of shalosh, or san, or three. That's why we say that mathematics is an international language. We also use international icons that have been introduced over the past half century, for example those used for road signs, for restrooms, etc. And then there are the emoticons that are used in email and other forms of messaging, although there are some cultural differences between the west and eastern Asia in their use. 

Over time, logographic writing systems added characters and modifications with purely phonetic value, and also employed existing characters for a kind of rebus writing, and in some instances new, simpler forms of syllabic writing evolved, for example in Babylonia, where the shift to a syllabary was associated with the introduction of the first system of codified law, a written list of rules of conduct and punishments, which were connected to the ruler, Hammurabi. With a syllabary, you can go from thousands down to hundreds of characters. In Japan today, they use two syllabaries, totaling to under 100 characters, although they also learn our own Roman alphabet, and to some extent Chinese ideograms as well. 

The breakthrough in writing that pretty much set the west apart from the rest of the world was the alphabet, which brought the number of characters down to 20-something, so few that a child could learn it without too much trouble. The first version appears in the Sinai desert about 3500 years ago, and this Semitic aleph-bet may well be associated with the events represented by the Biblical story of Exodus. I'm not suggesting a literal interpretation of the Bible, just that an uprising against Egypt is associated with a new, more democratic form of communication, and this new possibility for literacy is associated with the first fully monotheistic religion (which requires the kind of abstract thinking associated with literacy in order to conceive of a deity that cannot be seen, is all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, and above all singular), the first representation of the past as written narrative history (as opposed to oral myths and legends), one of the first systems of codified law (the 10 Commandments being the first of 613 laws and commandments in the Torah or 5 Books of Moses), nascent concepts of equality and individualism, and generally speaking the religious and ethical basis of western culture. 

When the Semitic alphabet was later introduced to the Greeks, and adopted about 2800 years ago, the result was the basis of western secular culture, including the beginnings of philosophy, science, secular history, theater, and democracy. The Greeks added the idea of vowels, which were only implied in the Semitic alphabet, and no further progress in writing systems have occurred since then, apart from the occasional addition of a letter or two (the original systems had 22 letters, we've gone up to 26, some others have a few more based on the use of accent marks). In addition to the Greek alphabet and our own Roman alphabet, there's the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia, Ukraine, etc., the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets derived from the original Semitic version, an alphabet used in India that they adopted from the Semites, and a Korean alphabet whose characters look like Chinese ideograms. 

The alphabet made it possible for literacy to spread beyond an elite group. Children could learn how to read and write relatively easily, and could read relatively fluently compared to what was required to read logographic writing. Writing eventually made it possible to record the entire culture in this new form, rather than depend upon oral tradition, so knowledge could be preserved, and accumulated, making real progress possible. Ong notes that before writing there was no such thing as study. The first schools were founded in Mesopotamia to teach cuneiform, but it was especially in ancient Greece that the concept of study and schooling really coalesced. 

Along with education, widespread literacy went hand-in-hand with the development of a reading public, a readership who read not only as a vocation (as an accountant or priest might), but for pleasure or for edification. With writing, it became possible to edit narratives, and thereby tell stories that progress from beginning to middle to end in strict, linear fashion, whereas oral narratives were episodic, with the episodes relatively easy to rearrange, and the typical strategy being to begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, to grab the attention of the audience. Writing also made it possible to move away from flat type characters of mythic and legendary stature to more well rounded and realistic individuals. 

Writing was still a means of perfecting oral communication in the ancient world, used for rhetoric, oratory, poetry, teaching, dialogue, but the growing number of written works meant that a true literature was accumulating. Writing also made it possible to separate oneself from one's culture, and one's thoughts, as Havelock put it, to separate the knower from the known. Our thoughts, our knowledge, and our culture could be studied from outside of ourselves. With writing, knowledge could be viewed and reviewed, allowing us to criticize, analyze, and evaluate our traditions, and our ideas, and to think in more abstract terms than had previously been the case. 

Writing also put a new stress on vision that had not existed before, especially in Greco-Roman culture, a point that McLuhan emphasized back in the 60s, but it is only in recent years that neuroscience has shown that literacy actually rewires the brain, including its visual centers. Along with the visual came an emphasis on linearity, as letters are lined up to make a word, words lined up to make a sentence, sentences lined up to make a paragraph, etc. We remade our world in this image, so that everywhere you look, you see straight lines and right angles, like writing on a page, and these are forms that you do not find in nature.