Many reading supports (or surfaces) have been used for communication and documentation throughout the history of written language. As new technologies are discovered and introduced to the population, writing tools change and evolve. After going through information and communication technology supports such as stone, wood or similar surfaces for inscriptions, through to papyrus, parchment and paper for manuscripts and printing, the newest form of technology to be introduced as a support has been the screen. It is relatively new, as evidence of writing dates back thousands of years to cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia c.3500 (Mark).
The screen, in comparison to other supports, is essentially an infant in the writing world. Having only been successfully invented in the 1940s (Zimmermann), its rapid rise to widespread use has revolutionized the way writing technologies are used. While both writing by hand and print technologies continue to be widely used in today’s industrialized societies, a vast amount of our written communication now occurs online, using our screens as the interface.
There are many advantages of the new screen technologies. For example, information can be shared in seconds all around the world through the Internet. Using these types of technology for writing is quick and easy, as typing is faster than carving inscriptions or writing by hand for those experienced in digital technologies. The introduction of the Internet and word processors allows for new innovations such as spell check and language translation, which can help to ease communication with others. As well, written documents can be easily accessed at any time through a screen without needing to transport a bulky printed book, or carved surface.
Alongside these advantages, however, there are also several prominent disadvantages to using screens and digital technology as our writing and reading supports. In comparison to other types of supports, the hard drives which store the information used in computers and other screen technologies have an astonishingly short life span. Any current knowledge of cuneiform and other types of early writing depend on the ability of the surface on which it was written to last over time. Luckily, supports for inscription are the most long lasting of any surface used for writing, with clay, stone, and other hard surfaces being able to last 6000+ years to the present day under the proper preservation conditions. Research on hard drives, on the other hand, has indicated that they have a 78% chance of lasting 4 years, with a 12% increase in failure rate for any time beyond these 4 years (Beach). This does not bode well for the future of writing studies. These preservation issues are therefore not only an inconvenience to those who experience a hard drive crash, but also potentially detrimental to the future of information storage and preservation.
Another down side of using hard drives and screens to record and display information is that multiple parts are necessary for the full process. While supports such as paper have multiple uses in terms of their capacity to be both the surface on which the information is encoded as well as the display used to read and interpret the information, digital technologies require hard drives as well as a computer or some type of screen. If in the distant future, someone were to come across a hard drive filled with information about our current civilization, that person may not have the technology to extract the information from the hard drive. In fact, they may not recognize it as a writing and reading support at all, as it is unlike inscription, script, and print supports in the fact that its information is not accessible when someone is only looking at it, without using the proper tools.
(This image of two hard drives demonstrates how it is physically impossible to retrieve the stored information on the disk without the proper tools.)
As technology continues to develop at dazzling speeds, it is worth keeping in mind both the upsides and downsides of these new types of writing supports. Will someone find a way to preserve the information recorded and displayed on these digital formats, or will we only move further away from the accessibility of past forms of supports? Only time will tell.
Beach, Brian. “How long do disk drives last?”Backblaze. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
Mark, Joshua J. “Cuneiform.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
“Hard drives.” Photograph. Explain That Stuff, 2016. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
Zimmermann, Kim A. “History of Computers: A Brief Timeline.” Live Science. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.