The world’s first technology for writing was invented not by poets or prophets or the chroniclers of kings; it came from bean counters. The Sumerian cuneiform script–made up of symbols incised on soft clay–grew out of a scheme for keeping accounts and inventories. Curiously, this story of borrowing arithmetical apparatus for literary purposes has been repeated in recent times. The prevailing modern instrument for writing–the computer–also began as (and remains) a device for number crunching.
Dennis Baron’s extended essay A Better Pencil looks back over the entire history of writing technologies (clay tablets, pens, pencils, typewriters), but the focus is on the recent transition to digital devices. His title implies a question. Is the computer really a better pencil? Will it lead to better writing? There is a faction that thinks otherwise: