Did you ever write an AU assignment on a tablet? Me neither! While touch screen keypads might be suitable for kibitzing with family and friends and dolling our faces up with filters ranging from Capuchin Monkey to Octogenarian Granny, nothing beats the tactile nature of a physical keyboard.
Traditional keypads contain ample space for flourishes where fingertips meet their mark with a satisfying smack. Like the lost art of cursive or the hipster-approved craft of pottery, there’s an ineffable jouissance attained by tactile expressivity. Physical expression seems perpetually on the wane, however. Martin Heidegger, almost a century ago, suggested that only writing by hand can truly express what it is to be human: “This history of the kinds of writing is one of the main reasons for the increasing destruction of the word. The latter no longer comes and goes by means of the writing hand, the properly acting hand, but by means of the mechanical forces it releases. The typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e., the realm of the word. The word itself turns into something “typed.”
We might wonder, then, in our era of blaring smartphone videoclips rather than silent library research, what we are to become. Recall Karl Marx’s famous rejoinder to those who see in human nature an eternally unchanging essence: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” .
Yet, writing with a pen can be slow and frustrating when our thoughts are streaming through our minds like an epiphany cavalcade. In fact, much of what makes school suck, in the popular imagination at least, is the studious dull nature of sitting and writing at a desk like some woebegone Charlie Brown or a seething Calvin (sans Hobbes) held in detention. No wonder Moses, after hearing God speak and receiving stone tablets “inscribed by the very finger of God” later broke them in anger!
Ostensibly, angst for Moses was about idol worship (and here we might think of the endless streaming videos that make the internet anything but a library of learning), but in a deeper sense the key reality is that only when Moses wrote the tablets anew, with his own chisel, did they stand the test of time. Learning is like that, religious mythology aside. When we can recapitulate what we learn in our courses, doing so through the magic of our own minds and hands and with heaping dollops of our own ideas, that is when we come into contact with the magical mystery of knowledge itself.
Show Your Bones and Learn to Glow
There must be some common ground between two poles of expression, the dubious sloth pace of writing by hand and the rapid bewildering realm of voice-to-text transcription. It would appear that the nature of communication depends on technology, be it a carving tool to impress ancient hieroglyphics onto a clay tablet, or a stylus to select one’s emojis onto a smartphone screen.
A recent archaeological find reminds us that tools of relative complexity existed far, far, back in the mists of pre-human history such that linguistic expression seems in itself to be a relatively recent invention. Archaeologists have discovered a barbed bone tool from 800 000 years ago that was created by Homo erectus. Perhaps it was used to butcher meat. While its purpose is unclear, the complexity of the carved bone shows that we Homo sapiens weren’t the first to use tools requiring careful thought.
Nor do we have a monopoly on thinking about our environment in ways familiar to anthropologists studying countless societies all the way down (or up) the historical timeline. “‘Olduvai hominids, whether they were H. erectus or some other prehuman population, carefully selected bones as well as stones for toolmaking,’ Tryon says. ‘They were expert craftsmen or women.’ New York University archaeologist Justin Pargeter agrees. ‘Although it’s unclear whether the Olduvai artifact was a pointed bone tool comparable to those later made by H. sapiens’, he says, ‘the existence of any bone toolmaking 800,000 years ago shows that this practice is far older than typically assumed’”
While translating thoughts into written form requires tools, to avoid being a tool of technology rather than master of our academic domain requires that we seek and utilize the best methods to make our education meaningful. That surely is why a keyboard is preferable to a tablet when writing our assignments.
The Fly on the Wall is often a dense read, riding between pop-culture references and philosophical or historical academics, but that didn’t stop a couple from being recommended by students for the Best of the Voice. I chose this one, from our March 26th edition, because of that last sentence, which, given that he was just writing of how we’ve moved on from clay tablets, can be seen as either an ironic or literal comment on the nature of progress – and I’m still not sure which.