What Is Writing, Legally Speaking?

An interesting post by Dennis Baron at the OUP Blog on the Dictionary Act, which seems to define “writing” rather narrowly as per U.S. law:

The problem with the Dictionary Act’s definition of writing is that it is specific without being inclusive. The law identifies as writing a number of technologies that many people might not have considered to be writing at the time the statute was drafted. Unfortunately, this attempt at cutting-edge defining now seems quaint but retro: some of the technologies that the Act names are obsolete–even typewriters in America are more likely to be museum pieces or attic junk than writing machines–and it is silent on the new technologies that should be covered by a legal definition.

It’s time for our lawmakers to acknowledge that, with more writing done with silicon chips than pen and ink, we’re shifting away from mechanically reproducible text to writing on screen. The advent of text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies promises to blur the traditional distinctions between speech and writing. And the forms which writing takes are not just visible representations of our ideas, but machine-readable strings of 1’s and 0’s, charged particles, nanoswitches flipping on and off, LEDs, pixels, and things not yet dreamt of in our philosophy. Writing is becoming less and less a physical object which can be grasped, or whose physical location can be fixed in time and space, and more and more something that can be coded and streamed, fragmented and rematerialized, zipped and expanded, mashed and remixed, and moved around with the fingertips on a touch screen. Try selling that to a bunch of legislators who think of the internet as a series of tubes

There are lots of good points in here (and reading its musing on the increasing digitization of all discourse one wonders when writing will be equated with simply talking), but I was left to ask myself so what? Sure, the definition of writing in the Dictionary Act is a poor one by many standards, but what harm is it doing? What could be better about society if it was changed? And what of these shadowy forces that Dennis Baron implies rather paranoically are working to keep things as they are?

Alas, Baron never tells us . . .

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