100 Questions About Writing And The Future
Jimmy Butts teaches writing and the teaching of writing to university students, and is always looking for novel ways of doing those things. He has worked with students from Charleston County High Schools, Winthrop University, Clemson University, Wake Forest University, and now LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as Director of The University Writing Program. He received his Ph.D. from the transdisciplinary program known as Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University. His research interests include postmodern composition strategies, new media, rhetorical criticism, defamiliarization, and writing pedagogy. He has published multimodal work in The KB Journal, Pre-Text, as a proud instructor in The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects, The Cybertext Yearbook, and for Pearson Education.
So, here is the question:
How will we write in the future? The question(s) offer an invitation for thinking, a pedagogical meditation.
How many questions about writing will never be answered? Of course, when we speculate about the future, all we have are questions. We cannot know what will happen.
In our current world, where electricity and human compositions are more ubiquitous than ever, we, of course, have to find new ways of interjecting our voices. And then, too, we have to find ways of prepping ourselves to be good compositionists after the bomb—whatever that may end up looking like. That is, in the face of potential apocalypse, how can we begin to practice approaches to writing that may serve us in scenarios where the tools of writing must inevitably change? It is impossible to discern, so we imagine futures discerningly, but endlessly.
The world will one day end. That is inevitable—whether it happens tomorrow or in a zillion years, the earth will grow hot or cold, and everything will die. Before that, there will be smaller deaths: the death of Microsoft and the death of the Internet and the death of paper made from trees. A happier thought: we have the opportunity to invent new approaches to composition before everything dies. So, how will we do that? We uncover—following the meaning of apocalypse—the forms, conventions, genres, practices, process, and tools that we can compose with moving forward.
What models do we have? We do have some examples:
Anne Frank writes her diary, keeps track of herself in the midst of catastrophe. In 9/11, we have records of text messages send to and from loved ones. We have The Tower of Babel and the burned Library of Alexandria. What textual archives will we build and lose? We imagine scraps of paper and facing our eventual death. This is always the essence of writing. We have seen science fiction where electricity is gone, or trees, or the general functioning of everyday life—the postal service, for example. So, we wonder at what may come. And what genres will we generate? Prophecy will likely return in full force. It already has in the work of folks like Al Gore. Kenneth Burke imagines our collective worst possible outcome in his speculative classic rhetorical text: “Towards Helhaven.”
Or, we have speculative visions in stories and film that offer us insight into how we may construct compositions in our various possible futures. We are to be compositional doomsday preppers, writerly end times watchers. The trope of the sandwich board decrying that “THE END IS NIGH” is at its core a kind of writing with particular rhetorical intent. The warning as a missive is a reluctant imperative.
Maurice Blanchot gives us what is perhaps one of the most seminal sketches—explorations—in the writing of disaster. In his book, he attempts an explanation: “The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual” (7). The disaster is only theory. It is the unthinkable that offers infinite thought.
Michael Bernard Donals too offers some injunctions in thinking about writing in the face of impossible disaster, especially in consideration of the holocaust. In his article, “The Rhetoric of Disaster and the Imperative of Writing,” he inures the reader of the importance of testifying, of speaking toward the requirement of taking a stance in the face of obliteration (73-74). Bernard-Donals is looking at a real past, but we too, then, can look forward at what sorts of futures will have been our collective history. If we end up with apocalyptic pasts, it will only be by undergoing various kinds of particular futures.
And Gregory Ulmer invites theory as a kind of undergoing, learning by doing rather than just through spectatating. But apocalypse is spectacle, which is why so many of us have already seen footage of the Atom Bomb. Perhaps the strongest two places where Ulmer theorizes futurity (aside from his essential work on electracy, which inherently paves the way for the future of writing) are in Electronic Monuments and in a briefer essay called “Teletheory: A Mystory.” There Ulmer wonders in his opening section called The Future of Theory, “At the speed of thought now—mock something-or-other—it becomes necessary to ask what will have been next, in order to allow time for thought: tense, without anxiety” (339).
Jacques Derrida in “No Apocalypse, Not Now” and Susan Sontag in “The Imagination of Disaster” both warn us not to romanticize the apocalypse the way many tend to do. The implore a richer meta-awareness that leads to ethical actions in the present. And Slavoj Zizek too balks at the ridiculousness of our galloping toward the end of capitalism in Living in the End Times.
Finally, Aristotle too gives us a sense of our own being-in-time by thinking through the kinds of rhetorical practices we enact toward the past, the present, and the future. We make arguments to change the world in the future, working against all contingency. The past offers a kind of cheering or mourning over what we’ve done—epideictic. But we can imagine doing things that are praiseworthy in the future. I hope so, at least.
If we can create, compose, novel and good futures, we offer a way out, a new take on a long (hi)story. I want us to be able to see and speculate some good possible futures. I want for us to find new pathways for texts to function in powerful ways going forward. I don’t know where language will take us, but I’m willing to keep being a user and find out. Quitting is not an option.
I’m wondering what possible things we could even begin to know about the future. Wondering seems like all we can do. But I suppose that we can make changes in the present that would lead to different, more predictable future outcomes, for better or for worse.
What can we do? What needs doing now?
100 Questions About Writing and The Future
So, what's the question?
1. How will we write in the future?
2. How will we write if we run out of trees?
3. How will we write if we run out of electricity, not just for a day or so, but for forever?
4. How might we write after the bomb, whatever that ends up looking like?
5. How much more involved will robots be with our writing in the coming years?
6. What company will go out of business first: Microsoft, Google, Apple?
7. Will some great author write down on some piece of paper that I recycled today?
8. How will the teaching of writing change in 100 years?
9. Will the pen always be mightier than the sword—if it even is now?
10. How many pens will we have manufactured after it’s all said and done?
11. How many pens will we have lost or borrowed collectively over the years?
12. Are pens a good investment?
13. Should I start hoarding pens to sell in the event of an apocalypse?
14. Will it ever be easier or less daunting to write an essay, or is that sort of the deal?
15. When will our current version of English sound funny like Shakespeare’s?
16. Who will output more text next year, humans or machines?
17. What might libraries look like in 1000 years; will there be any left?
18. Who will buy the last book from Amazon?
19. Who will finish the last book?
20. Is writing generally more divisive or generative?
21. How will we write during the next big disaster?
22. How will we write after the next big disaster?
23. Are we always already composing in the face of disaster?
24. When would it be unnecessary to write anymore?
25. What might the last billboard advertise?
26. Might graffiti be a necessary medium in the apocalypse?
27. What country will produce the last great author, and does that country even exist yet?
28. Has the last great author been born yet?
29. How many more languages might we develop?
30. Why isn’t anyone else worried about whether we’ll run out of pencils and not be able to make any more?
31. How many times will humans type the word “the” next week?
32. Will there ever be a universal language?
33. When will English become a dead language?
34. How many science fiction things will come true—all of them?
35. How do you leave a message that someone else can read in 10,000 years?
36. Who will use the last adjective, and will it be a sad one?
37. What new genres might we invent in 1000 years?
38. When will we let go of the rules?
39. What new rules might we come up with?
40. Could commas ever become obsolete?
41. What will the last misspelled word be?
42. What letter will we have used the most—maybe a vowel?
43. When will we stop using Microsoft Word and why?
44. What kind of writing archive would last the longest?
45. Will we have lost more texts than we’ve saved in the end?
46. I know that astronauts have already written in space, and I’m jealous about that, but will we ever write on other planets?
47. Does sending messages to space rovers on Mars count as writing on other planets?
48. Will any other species ever learn to write their own names?
49. Or… are other species already writing things on distant planets?
50. I think that there must be some sort of writing on the moon right now, leftover from some mission, isn’t there?
51. What would aliens write about that’s different than what we write about?
52. How many words are saved in the cloud right now?
53. Do the computers in heaven come preloaded with Microsoft Word, or are they running their own proprietary software?
54. How many more emails do I have to send before I die?
55. Are our writing devices slowly giving us cancer?
56. Do we write more during war or during peacetime?
57. Who will send the last letter in the mail?
58. And who will be the last postman or woman to walk a letter up to someone’s front door?
59. What would cause PDFs to become obsolete filetypes?
60. Will the QWERTY keyboard ever die?
61. How many pounds of receipts will never be read?
62. Is writing getting easier, or harder, or about the same?
63. What will be the last grade on an essay ever, are we thinking higher or lower?
64. Is it better to spend a lifetime on one text or to try to generate as many different texts as possible?
65. Which is worse, writing too little or writing too much?
66. What will be written on the last page?
67. Would it be a tragedy or a success for humans to eventually do away with writing altogether?
68. What percentage of all human writing have we completed so far?
69. How many of our texts will outlive us altogether?
70. Who will be the next Anne Frank?
71. How many text messages were sent during 9/11?
72. How many text messages have been sent that say I love you?
73. How many text messages have been sent in our classes?
74. What is the next word that we will add to the dictionary?
75. What word have you learned but forgotten or will never use?
76. What will the apocalypse uncover about writing?
77. Who can teach us to prep for the writing practices we do not yet know?
78. Will we always write with computers from here on out?
79. Could we develop new reasons to write altogether?
80. How many electrons are involved when I type my name, and where do they head off to when they’re done with me?
81. What will be the last piece of paper to turn to dust?
82. Will neon signs ever go out of style because they seem to be everywhere in those futuristic movies?
83. Who opened the first graphite mine, and who will close the last one?
84. Who was the first person to write on a sheep’s skin, and do we still do that anywhere in the world right now?
85. Who was the first person to write on stone, and who will be the last?
86. Who was the first person to use a typewriter, and who will be the last?
87. Who was the first person to write?
88. Who will be the last person to write?
89. What will our final writing tool look like?
90. How many more composition notebooks will we fill up together, and how many will we leave blank?
91. How will my one year old daughter write when she’s 80?
92. How will their daughters write when they grow up?
93. How will our great grandchildren tell each other their names?
94. What will my daughters read that hasn’t even been written yet?
95. Is there some way to keep writing after we die?
96. And who will read what we’ve written after we die?
97. What is the right way to compose new beginnings?
98. How many apocalypses can we hold off with words?
99. What’s the next thing you’re going to write?
100. What’s the last thing you’re going to write?
Bernard-Donals, Michael. “The Rhetoric of Disaster and the Imperative of Writing.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1, 2001, pp. 73-94.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of Disaster. University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Burke, Kenneth. “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 79, no. 1, 1971, pp. 11-25.
Derrida, Jacques. “Not Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Diacritics, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 20-31.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of Anne Frank. Doubleday, 1959.
Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986, pp. 3-14.
Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- - -. “Teletheory: A Mystory.” Electracy: Gregory L. Ulmer’s Textshop Experiments, edited by Craig Saper and Victor Vitanza, The Davies Group Publishers, pp. 47-82.
Zizek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. Verso, 2011.