The Effects of New Technologies
on Writing and Writing Processes
Charles A. MacArthur
In a recent article in The Washington Post Sennett (2004) discussed the agonized reflections of a college student about whether her use of e-mail rather than the more casual instant messaging had scared away a potential date by conveying too much sense of commitment. In the high-stakes rituals of dating, where e-mails are edited by friends for the proper breezy tone before sending, her friends concluded that the e-mail had definitely been a mistake.
Electronic technologies are changing the forms by which people communicate with each other and understand the world. Changes in technology have and will continue to change the nature of literacy practices in society, and the cognitive and social skills needed to be considered fully literate. The process did not start with computers. Radio, television, and the movies dramatically altered the ways in which we receive news, entertain ourselves, consume goods, choose heroic figures, elect our leaders, and understand our culture. These popular media have had limited direct impact on schooling, though they may have had substantial indirect effects. Computer technologies may have a more direct influence on schooling and on literacy for two reasons. First, the integration of text and other media in hypermedia and the Internet means that schools, charged with responsibility for the important business of teaching reading and writing, cannot ignore them as they did television and the movies. The integration of text with graphics, video, and sound may encourage schools to expand the concept of literacy to include a variety of media. Second, electronic technologies engage students as writers or producers rather than just as readers or consumers. From publication of class newsletters to e-mail projects to hypermedia web pages, to blogs and zines, computers offer students opportunities to create new types of documents. At the same time, they are changing the ways in which traditional text is produced. New technologies promise to become increasingly important in our schools as tools for inquiry and learning, as well as means for communicating and composing.
In considering the impact of new technologies on writing, it is useful to begin with recent scholarship on the impact of writing on cognitive and social processes. Writing is itself a technology, a combination of a symbol system and various physical means of production, that makes possible the durable representation of language. Olson (1995) argued that written language, by capturing and communicating words with precision and separating them from the context of production, affords the opportunity to think in a more abstract and decontextualized way. The invention of the alphabet, which made literacy possible for more than the few, and of the printing press and paper, which supported wide literacy, had dramatic impacts on the nature of thinking in society—