The Value of Words

What is scarce is valuable, what is common cheap. The prevalence of a medium, as well as its ease of access, has the effect of cheapening that which the medium transmits. Thousands of years ago very few could read and write, and so what those privileged few could produce was of great import. This is coupled with the fact that the early materials for writing were very crude – for example, clay tablets – and the act of using them difficult, at least when compared to modern tools of communication now at our disposal. As time went on, the medium improved with the addition of ink and paper, but the number of those who could make use of it remained low.

But even if you could read and write, there remained the problem of reproducing content – it had to be done by hand. Every book and scroll that was copied, was copied by hand. This high cost of labor and time meant that only the very important articles of content were reproduced, and the physical copies themselves were very valuable. The Gutenberg printing press ushered in a revolution in content distribution as it freed the scribes from their difficult toil of copying books by hand by delegating it to the machine, and while this new invention still had to be operated by humans, the labor and time required to copy a book was drastically cut.

As printing technology improves, words become cheaper to print, and are in turn themselves cheapened, though this change, unlike sudden revolutions like the Gutenberg press, is gradual, like the adoption of those media. The typewriter, and following that, the personal computer and the Internet, have pushed us ever forward in that direction, making it easier than ever to record and distribute written content, and, coupled with the rise of the middle class and good education meant that a wider than ever before pool of people could make use of the new technologies.

Today, we’re in a world of content hyper-sharing, with everyone blogging, tweeting and leaving comments around the World Wide Web. Not only is it easier than ever to write, the content you’ve created is easier and cheaper than ever to transmit as well. Indeed, the cost of a single transmission, i.e. to have a single visitor view a blog post, is so low it is virtually free. How does this reflect on the value of content? If there is such a thing as true, objective value of a piece of content, then it is unaffected, but if we are to look at our perceived value of written content itself across media, that is of the written word as a communications channel, then I think it has fallen considerably from a hundred years ago and is drastically lower than it was a thousand years ago. When words are cheap to produce and distribute, the perception of content which they carry is in turn cheapened.

With the rise of the ball-point pen, and following that, the keyboard, we have lost the art of calligraphy. Even the ball-point pen provides a level of feeling and expression, but the keyboard… each stroke of the keyboard is the same, and produces exactly the same letter every time it is hit on the pixel canvas of our digital screens. The scribes who copied books by hand in blackletter, that distinctive Gothic font drawn with a broad quill, created work that was beautiful to behold, not merely because each letter was elegant and well proportioned, but because you knew that this work was done by the human hand, with all of its imperfections and flaws, but all the same with effort, dedication and feeling.

The act of writing with the pen on paper also has the effect of finality to it. As the ink gets soaked up the by fibers of the page, there is nothing you can do to get it out again. Yes, you could try scrubbing it out, painting over it or crossing it out, but whichever method you use you will never restore a page to its original state before those words were committed to it. This is a stark contrast to the keyboard and the digital screen, where every word, sentence or paragraph can be deleted at the press of a button. The paper forces the writer to stop and think, to form sentences in their head before they proceed to write, but the keyboard tells them to start writing first, and edit later. On the digital canvas, everything is free, replaceable and disposable. There is no ink to use nor paper to waste, and so there is also no friction to start throwing the words out, no barrier to stop the writer and force them to spend a little more time inside their head forming their thoughts.

This may be good in that it makes the writing process easier by letting us dive in and experiment. It also creates an environment where we think as we type, not before we begin typing, and that in turn eliminates the need for solitary time, for moments of silence, for the space to think. When Dostoyevsky was imprisoned in Siberia, he was given no writing tools so he wrote whole novels in his head. When he was finally released, he already had the material, all he had to do was write it down. There was no time spent struggling with writers block trying to pull out every word and every sentence, that time of silence, contemplation and creation was already paid, all he had to do now was get his creations down on paper.

When writing materials were expensive, the writer had to be sure of what they were writing down, had to have formed a clear and valuable thought which they wanted to commit to paper. When the materials are cheap, or even free, the majority of things transmitted through them is likewise cheap. Not everything of course, but the majority, just like a filter that was once letting only a tiny stream of purified water through is now taken out and so the rest of the water now rushes in. This doesn’t just apply to all content that circulates in our society, but to content that we as individuals produce, for the filter does only act on the society as a whole, but also on the content that individual produces, that is, how selective the individual is with the material that they publish.

The problem with all the yellow journalism and sensationalist blogs is that of a missing selection process. The filter that was once imposed by physical means, that is, the high cost of materials, time and labor, has been taken out, and so we now face the great torrent of all manner of content good and bad that rushes at us from every side. With no selection, the valuable remains obfuscated in the sea of the mediocre, and so it is for us to build the dam to restraint it, to learn to judge and to select. The medium, which at one time acted as a filter to our advantage, is no longer going to help us select the very best. That is up to us now.

August 2012