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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Democracy Through Technology: Men and Women of Letters

I don’t know how old I was when I read a biography of Thomas Jefferson, perhaps I was 20 or thereabouts. I do remember being positively flabbergasted when I learned that he had written somewhere between 25,000 to 50,000 letters in his lifetime. I read this well before I owned my first computer, back when I either wrote freehand or on a typewriter. The physical act of writing with pen and paper has always proven difficult for me, perhaps because I grip the pen too hard. As I get older, writing by hand is actually painful for anything more than a paragraph or two. If Jefferson had similar problems with arthritic hands I never read about it in his letters.

A long time ago I went through a phase of reading the letters of famous people, mostly writers. In a collection of the letters of, let’s say Ernest Hemingway, many of the letters were simply business correspondence between the author and his editor. A lot of the other letters weren’t the least bit interesting, even to fans of Papa. I could say the same of the letters of a lot of famous people I have read.  Boring or not, I was usually impressed with the prolific nature of their correspondence back in my pre-computer days of pen and paper and typewriters.

Since I began using computer word processing programs I think that my writing output has been quite prolific by any standard. Just the letters I have exchanged with my two brothers would represent hundreds of thousands of words. I think that computers have made much better writers out of millions of people. I wouldn’t care to comment on the quality of a lot of this output, especially what I write, but there is no denying that computers have allowed a much greater percentage of the populace to achieve prolific status as writers. Where even as little as 20 years ago only a very limited elite of the world’s population wrote much more than a few letters home while vacationing, with the advent of the computer age a vast swath of people find it very easy to put their thoughts into words. Blogs have only been around for about ten years, at least to any wide degree, and there are perhaps millions of them now in existence. 

Without this technological advantage most of these people probably wouldn’t bother to write nearly as much—I know this is true in my case. As it is I think that over the last ten years of blogging, emails, and other stuff I have written on a computer I think I may be giving Thomas Jefferson a run for his money as far as sheer output is concerned.  So chapeau to computers for providing such a painless way to get words down in print and also to blogging sites that permit so many of us to publish whatever the hell it is we decide to write.

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