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Exercise: Invent a Writing Technology


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An idea we're going to explore in this class is the significance of the relationship between the technology we use to write and what and how we write. This relationship is generally below the radar because the technologies of writing we use - pencils, pens, paper, keyboards - have become transparent. We simply use them and are unaware of their influence on writing itself. But a new technology denaturalizes this commonplace and we can start to become critically aware of our habits and the elements we work in.This exercise will make this aspect of writing, what is usually invisible to us, visible.

This short exercise has two parts.

Part 1: First, invent a writing technology, and write a 20 or so word "text" of any type and on any subject, using only writing tools and technologies invented by you, found in nature, around the house, etc.

Part 2: For the second part, draw up some notes to guide our discussion. In a couple of pages of notes and bulleted lists, consider your encounter with your wiring technology, your encounter with the common technologies of writing today, and draw on the readings. See the Rules for Part 1, below.

1) Explain how you created your technology. Tell the story of its invention: the inspiration, the attempts, the testing and trials, the blood, sweat, and tears.

2) Talk about the changes and the limits and constraints your particular technology brings with it. What's it good for? What less so? How does it change graphemic and syntactic conventions we're familiar with? How does it change how the writing moves from place to place, how it's distributed? How does it change (if it does) the relationship between the writer and her writing? The reader and the writing? The reader and the message? The writer and the reader? In doing this, you'll need to compare your technology with others: paper and pencil, computer screen, typewriter, cell phone...

3) Finally, imagine how your new technology fits into education. What would a course involving your technology look like? What would need to be taught? What would "becoming literate" in your technology involve? What would person who is literate in your technology need to know how to do?

Rules for Part 1

* Do not use any of the modern conveniences of writing for any part of the process whatsoever. No purchased paper, inks, pens, pencils, crayons, typewriters, chalk, paints, brushes, or electronic devices. Don't use materials that are more or less obvious extensions of common writing technologies such as paint, nail polish, white out, etc.

* You are allowed to make your own writing utensils and materials. It's possible to make both simple papers and inks out of natural materials, for instance. Talk to an artist about making charcoal.

* Do not use existing technologies during process of writing your message. That is, do not use traditional means to write out a draft of 20 words which you then copy into your invented technology.

* You must use the most fundamental technology of writing, an alphabet. More specifically, write your project message in English (as opposed to some other language or form of representation like pictographs.)

* Do not create anything unsafe or unpleasant (peeing in the snow is out of bounds).

* If you are not able to physically present your project in class, turn in a photograph.

Basic matters to consider in your notes for part 2
You'll discover that what seems a simple matter - invent your own writing technology - quickly becomes problematic. This is expected, intentional, and opens up points of reflection for part 2 of the assignment. Consider as you tell the story of your technology's invention

* the extent to which the materials you use adhere to the rule of being found in nature, around the house, and/or created by you;
* portability: how mobile your technology is;
* permanence: how long the text will last;
* the success of the text you produce: what's it good for, for whom, in what contexts or situations.

From the first, we have a difficulty. What are, exactly, "materials found in nature, around the house, and/or created by you"? If you decide to etch your words in a clay slab with a stick, you could say that you have used "natural" materials. But unless you actually went and dug up the clay yourself, you are using a technology as "unnatural" as any other manufactured, purchased product (and getting the clay from the art department doesn't side-step this matter). But how about writing with a stick in beeswax you harvested from hives you keep?

Use materials as creatively as you can in the spirit of the assignment, which is to explore the relationship between technology and writing in a very literal way, and to ponder this problematic issue as part of your brief word-processed reflection on this process.

You also might want to consider the balance between the different criteria. For example, a particularly creative and "natural" project might not be all that permanent; something permanent might not be all that portable... and each of these have an influence on the message written , where it's read, and what, in the end, it means. (Why are gravestones made of granite? How does granite influence the message?)

This is a short project. We're doing it to consciously explore the the technologies and materials we use to create texts. The goal is not to make great artistic masterpieces or to work yourself to death. It might be pretty cool to chisel your text into a piece of marble, but it the cost of the materials and the time it would take to "write" the text are too much for this project.

You should spend at least as much time (if not more) drawing up your notes of how you went about creating your writing project as you spend creating the 20 or so word writing project itself.

Adapted from S. Krause
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