Writing is a pretty useful form of communication, we tend to write off (pardon the pun) entire civilisations as uncivilised or primitive simply because they didn’t develop a writing system and their oral histories have been lost or ignored. Writing can speak to not just two parties, the writer and the recipient, but the written word stays etched to talk to future generations and societies in a way that oral communication just cannot.
When I reflect over the couple of decades that I have been alive, I am constantly amazed by the rapid changes in technology. When I was little, LPs (or records) were still pretty normal things. I can remember CDs being developed but most of us still played cassettes. Using a similar ribbon technology, video cassettes were what we watched our films on and recorded interesting programs from the television on. We didn’t worry about scratches but ‘chewed’ tapes.
Technology was breaking new ground but it still wasn’t portable. The fax machine allowed instant communication from one place to another, even internationally but we still had personal cassette machines with bulky headphones (those seem to have returned for some reason) and carried ten pence pieces for emergency phone box calls.
I’m an unintelligent nerd or geek (I have no aptitude for the prerequisite sciences and maths or even computing) so I spent a lot of my later school years helping in the library. I think that the changes I saw in my time at school say the most about these rapid shifts of technology.
In middle school, we each had a certain number of green card square pockets or envelopes with our details on. When you wanted a book from the library you handed over one of these cards and the librarian (or monitor) would take the slip of pink or white card from the book and place it in your ‘library card’ before filing it in a special long wooden rack. The books kept those tongues of cards for much longer than there was this primitive borrowing system.
My senior school was high-tech. It had a computerised system. Probably DOS based. Green characters on a black screen and a multitude layer of menus to allow for navigation. We didn’t have cards anymore; our records were all digital, a window of dates and titles with our personal details. It wasn’t even a window like we’re used to on these modern computers, more like a frame. You’d have to go back rather than close it. And minimise certainly hadn’t been invented. I think the county library system was similar too.
Every week the library issued reminders for overdue books. It was laborious and accompanied by the unique screech of a dot matrix printer. Would today’s children recognise that noise? Or even the special paper that was required to fit within the teeth of its plastic cogs? We helping students would spend a long time peeling the punched edges from the paper then guillotining them into slips.
An unwanted ream (about five reams of modern printer paper) was also sometimes gifted to families for their children to use it for drawing paper. There were streamers to be made from the edgings and on the back was a magical system of green lines (on some but not all versions) that looked temptingly like musical scores.
The library system was backed up each night on a five-inch disk. Even my husband doesn’t remember those. His idea of a floppy disk is the three and a half-inch disks that were rigid plastic (sometimes, excitingly, in bright colours) that we used to back up our own work. The five-inch disks were properly floppy. A little like a bendy LP or record.
Before embarrassment finally won over, I saved countless stories to three and a half-inch disks. How much did those store? A mere megabyte of information? My camera now produces files of ten megabytes so that kind of explains why we outgrew that technology. But mind you, cameras didn’t make files back in those days. They were still using negatives, another ribbon technology.
Words are supposed to be permanent, a lasting record or memoir of who we are or were. But what happens when the technology changes this fast? Or when the writing becomes digital, embedded within legacy recording systems?
We can look at cave paintings from thousands of years ago and touch another hand, another human, his tangible marks connect us. Even vulnerable paper has left us an enduring legacy of countless billions of pages filed in libraries and archives.
Sometimes we struggle to decrypt ancient writing systems; we need discoveries like the Rosetta Stone that allow a translation between different forms, some now defunct. But the words were still there.
What about our words? Have we lost them forever?
PS. If you find that stone, let us know.