At no time in history have humans written more than they are doing now. We are always writing on our ‘walls', on multiple windows at a time. Much of what we write today on the World Web Web — mainly about ourselves — is drivel.
But that is not the point of this article.
The Web represents both a new idiom and a new medium for writing, at least for the connected section of humanity. We indicate precedence by “b4”, excellence by “gr8”, exclamation by “OMG”, humour by “lol”; the list is long and lengthening.
New turns of phrase are ever appearing; our endemic shortage of time and attention has to do with lack of “bandwidth”, for matters discreet, we take them “offline”, when out of depth, we crave for a “reboot”. It has been estimated that the Web may have added a couple of thousand new words to English. Not such a big deal, when you consider there are a million and half words in the English language. It is premature to judge the impact of the Web on English. After all, the jury is still out on how broadcasting over the airwaves — that started over a century ago — has impacted English.
Writing on the Web is different from any other medium in one fundamental way.
This is the first time in history we can publish without being policed. Proofreaders, editors, religious, cultural and political authorities do not retain the power to morph or maim what we write anymore. What are the symptoms of such newfound freedom? There are many. Let us look at one. The biggest casualty of our writing on the Web has been the “standard” English linguistic style, as defined by conventions for capitalisation, punctuation, spelling, etc. People hardly capitalise any more, punctuations are frequently omitted, and there is not much room for misspelling words such as “b4”, “gr8” and their ilk.
This may be seen as an uncouth assault on the millennia-old edifice of English. I prefer to see in it the amazing resilience of the language: twisted, turned, beaten, and bruised, the words still convey their meaning. This is another reflection of the low entropy of English language as measured by information theory. The invention of Gutenberg's printing press in the middle of the 15th century was a watershed event in civilisation. It opened up limitless possibilities with repeatability of the printed word. However, it also introduced subtle layers of control on the printed word that have dominated our civilization ever since. Printing in a press is resource intensive, and contingent upon effective acquisition and practice of specialised skills. Resource and skill are fulcrums of leverage – for those on the right side of it!
Writing on the Web requires minimal resource and easily acquired skills, both of which a large majority of mankind will hopefully come to possess in our lifetime. Thus the Web as a writing medium has the potential to be the next great leap beyond Gutenberg's invention.
Where will that leap take us? Perhaps we will have universal literacy — a boon for a country such as India. Perhaps languages of communication will converge with languages of computation; we will then programme computers in the language we speak. Perhaps we will reach that elusive unity of spoken and written words that authors have long craved. Incidentally, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) all but eschewed formal Bengali prose for a more colloquial writing style in the later half of his life, in support of a fledgling movement to bring the language of Bengali literature closer to the spoken dialect.
The possibilities are immense.
(The writer is a practitioner, author, researcher and teacher in the computing disciplines.)