‘I will give it to you in writing…’: Save the written word’s sanctity

Limited by technology as much as costs of production and dissemination, a written artefact spoke like the Greek Oracles of yore.
Limited by technology as much as costs of production and dissemination, a written artefact spoke like the Greek Oracles of yore.

Summary

  • High costs of production and dissemination once gave the written word not just scarcity value but a related assurance of quality, but the digital age has seen all these variables crash. Perhaps India’s traditional strengths could combine with the written form's to effect a paradigm shift.

In the middle of an intense argument, a man thunders, “Main likh ke deta hoon ki tum kuchh nahin kar paaoge" (I can give this in writing that you won’t be able to do anything). With that clinching argument made, the other party quietens, perceptibly taken aback at the implied confidence in his powerlessness. That is the power of the written word. Used countless times daily through actions and words, the submission of something in ‘writing’ stands for veracity, tangibility, authenticity and timelessness.

But does it anymore? To understand this, we need to go back in time. Since ancient times, Indian society relied on faithful verbal repetition, or shruti and smriti (heard knowledge and memory in the Hindu tradition), to pass on the exact message through generations without loss of information. But as the need increased for preservation of authenticity and wider dissemination, ‘writing’ became first a convenience and later a necessity. Given the natural agelessness of the written form that outlives human life, writing soon became the sine qua non of any societal activity, whereby it was directly linked with literacy, formality and access to economic opportunities. Even in olden times, trade necessitated binding arrangements that were soon reflected in written documents. The Western world made material progress faster because, according to Professor Joseph Heinrich, it could transcend the boundaries imposed by having to transact within one’s own tribes or communities. In the modern era, the written contract and its associated legal sanctity have hugely facilitated dealings between strangers, thus scaling up economic activity.

Writing was respected more than the verbalized word, not only for its mark of genuineness and a natural resistance to retraction in retrospect, but also for something else. Given that writing involved high levels of literacy as well as the use of period-centric technology in the form of tablet writing, calligraphy and later printing, it meant seriousness and scarcity at the same time. Limited by technology as much as costs of production and dissemination, a written artefact spoke like the Greek Oracles of yore.

Now, when those levers change, so does the outcome. Few could claim to be published authors earlier, and there were multiple rejections of exquisite works. Scarcity caused by production compulsions meant that quality was preferred over quantity. Today, one can get a book self-printed, and there are over 1,000 printing companies, big and small, a large proportion of which unfortunately do not operate with the necessary editorial rigour. Digitization and e-sharing have practically terminated all barriers to dissemination. You can write anything and share it widely at the touch of a thumb. That naturally does away with any sense of editorial checks or tone control. We can write the most egregious falsities about anyone, and within five minutes, the world can read it. Plagiarism has stigmatized some works of even the best in the business. An older generation continues to be led astray by random written words on WhatsApp or shady websites, for they were brought up on the authenticity of written content. Even in the financial world, which derives its strength from independent judgement, investment research reports by brokerage houses have frequently turned out to be sales brochures, bringing down one of the pillars of financial markets—unbiased information and analysis. The subprime crisis in the US a decade-and-a-half ago brought to the fore the issue of the integrity of credit ratings, which had clearly become highly compromised. The written word no longer stood the test of reality.

This erosion of trust, reliability and respect for the written word is compounded by social media, where anonymity encourages frivolity, exaggeration and falsities. The chasm between reality and fiction is so deep and yet so difficult to counter that it has given rise to a new avenue of employment, ‘fact-checking,’ that now has to be checked for its own biases.

It necessitates the question: Was this steep drop from the scruples of ancient writing to the mockery it has become today sudden? Once the written word became easy to procure, disseminate and influence, there were suddenly no commas in the story of its decline.

Earlier, the publisher was responsible for picking wheat apart from the chaff, and now we the readers have to make that discernment, since writing now suffers from a problem of plenty and a scarcity of quality. Language-processing artificial intelligence (AI) will exacerbate this issue, as has already been identified in its ability to ‘hallucinate,’ a euphemistic term for the untrue drivel it often produces. Amid all this, trust is inspired only by personal verifications and words spoken by people one trusts.

True to the Indian concept of cyclical time, we seem to have come full circle. Today, once again, we need to hear from learned men if what is published is indeed true. It is a considerable shift in the way societies operate.

If a country like ours can combine our traditional strengths with the sanctity of the written word, then that would be a new paradigm of global evolution and a shift of its centre of gravity from contract-based to trust-based societies. Otherwise, we will continue to be inundated with quotes attributed to Albert Einstein without knowing if they are real or fake. No wonder, then, that the classic old statement of confidence at the start of this article has become a ridiculous meme of a famous line used by Pankaj Tripathi’s character in the 2017 Hindi film Newton: “Likh ke dunga."

These are the authors’ personal views.

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