Reading Without Writing: (Comments on Sperber:

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 2 Feb 2002 13:16:57 +0000

I append my own commentary, by way of provocation, below.
You are encouraged to comment too, at:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2002 17:05:37 +0100
Subject: New text on text-e

A new text is online at
Dan Sperber : "Reading without Writing".

You are all invited to take part into the discussion.

Gloria Origgi & Noga Arikha
moderators of text-e


Writing Skill: Its Peripheral Motor and Central Cognitive Components

Stevan Harnad

Dan Sperber makes the very reasonable prediction that a good deal of
our writing will eventually be done by dictation, once automatic
speech-transcription becomes sufficiently reliable, but that we will
continue to read. For whereas we speak much faster than we can write,
we speak (and listen) much slower than we can read.

Dan is also quite right that much of this is because we have evolved a
brain that is specifically speaking/listening-prepared rather than
reading/writing-prepared (although the fact that language originated in
a neurological adaptation for an oral/aural "culture" makes our latter-day
reading alacrity a rather remarkable epiphenomenon!).

But I am not so convinced by his predictions about the future of
writing, and instruction in it. I of course don't mean calligraphy or
typing skills. I mean the exercise of the act of creating lapidary
written text, by whatever motor organ one may use, be it hand, foot or
mouth. The essence of the skill of writing no more resides in the
muscular adeptness of a motor endorgan than oratory skill resides in
the adroitness of the lips.

An early clue to this mismatch of cognitive skill levels comes here:

Dan Sperber: "Is it that writing systems are more complex than
languages? Quite the opposite.... [L]inguists have not yet succeeded in
providing a fully explicit grammar of any language, whereas writing
systems are based on fully explicit rules."

But that is comparing apples and fruit! The right "system" to compare
with the writing system for complexity is not "language," but speech.
In other words, grapheme systems must be compared with phoneme systems.
The two will be found to be of approximately the same level of
complexity (although herein might lie some of the clues to the
remarkable speed-advantage of the visuospatial [graphemic] mode over
the audiotemporal [phonemic] mode for input [but not for output]). Yet
it is LANGUAGE that both modes encode. And language is the system with
which grammarians are still struggling, not writing or speech.

So what has gone wrong? Dan notes that "Writers can write, correct,
rewrite." Indeed. And what are they correcting? They are not correcting
their penmanship or their typing skills. They are correcting their
WRITING, and by writing skill I mean something similar to what we mean
when we refer to a speaker's "oratory" skill (how well he expresses
himself in words orally, in real time).

Writing is not an online, real-time, do-or-die skill like oration. Let
us not forget that until the very recent advent of audio recording,
speech left no permanent residue (apart from the impressions in
auditors' minds and memories: the oral tradition). Writing, in
contrast, is an off-line, doing and redoing skill, in which the output
undergoes a variety of dynamic transformations (each of them in
principle preservable) before it is finally etched in stone. And
writing's essence is that it does preserve a residue: a plastic,
manipulable one.

And that, entirely independent of the peripheral input/output
sensorimotor modality, is the central essence of writing skill -- what
it is that a writer must LEARN, through trial, error and feedback,
rather than already KNOWING, ex officio, so to speak, by virtue of
already knowing how to speak.

I don't want to be too apodictic about this. Some writers are
"naturals," writing lapidary texts literally "as they speak." But I
believe such gifts are a rarity, even among gifted writers, whose skills
lie as much in the editing and rewriting as in the spontaneous
generation (dictation, if you like) of the first draft.

What resources does Dan envision for the dictaphone version of this

Dan Sperber: "As soon as technology will make it possible to see one's
speech properly transcribed as it unfolds, and to modify the
transcription by means of oral instructions (and also, probably, of
pointing and highlighting hand movements), writing will present no
advantage that is sufficient to justify its cost."

If we are agreed that using a computer, keyboard, screen and mouse to
edit text -- to erase, write over, cut/paste, move, transpose,
search/replace, compare, etc.) is indeed old-style writing (closer to
calligraphy and dactylography than to oratory), then the real empirical
question here concerns how useful people will find it to inject an
oral/aural element into this interaction with their graphemes.

Dan may be speculating here that there will be a more convenient way of
cutting and pasting using oral commands rather than reaching out and
grabbing text with a mouse. (The "highlighting hand movements" are
equivocal, if they are merely shadowing what one does with a mouse!)

Perhaps he is right. Or, equally possible, once the first draft has
been generated by dictation, the rest of the writing will be more
effective with mouse, keyboard and screen, or still-to-be-discovered
sensorimotor peripherals, with the mouth reserved only for relatively
long bursts of inserting new text. It is hard to second-guess this in
advance, before the hybrid vocal/manual dictation/manipulation
capability is actually implemented, and then tested for its usability
and user-friendliness by "human factors" specialists.

But what seems clear is that this new hybrid oral/manual skill will
indeed be a new (peripheral) motor skill, one that users will have to
master! and having mastered it, they will have to turn to mastering the
higher level (central) cognitive skill that this technology was devised
to serve. And that higher level skill will be WRITING, not SPEAKING.

And both skills will probably have to be taught.

Dan Sperber: "Once writing isn't practised anymore (except by
calligraphists), what will happen to its teaching?... [An] economy of
effort... would result from teaching children just to read [rather
than] teaching both skills [reading and writing]."

I can't quite see the economy. Calligraphy (penmanship) is certainly
gone. Possibly (though not surely) keyboarding too. But the bimodal
motor skill underlying this new, hybrid oral/manual manipulation of
graphemes and lexemes? Will that not have to be taught and learnt too?
And only then begins the instruction in the USE of these bimodal
text-manipulating motor skills in the service of the real higher-order
cognitive skill in question, namely, writing.

Dan Sperber: "One may assume that the teaching of writing will long
outlive its obsolescence."

This often happens, out of habit and superstition, sometimes until an
entire generation dies off. But is that what is at issue here? Will the
counterparts of both the peripheral motor skill and the central
cognitive one underlying writing -- the latter always overlapping with
the cognitive skill of speech, but never coextensive with it -- not both
continue to exist, as skills to be taught and mastered, rather than
being supplanted, as Dan suggests, by the extant skills of reading and

Let us not, by the way, underestimate the importance of the exercise of
motor skills, both peripheral and central. What Held & Hein's (1963)
experiments (with the active and passive kittens) showed us was that
the passive "reading" of visual patterns is not even enough to allow us
to learn how to see: Active, dynamic sensorimotor interactions between
our bodies and the shapes and locations of objects in space --
trial-and-error, fumble-and-find practice in navigating, reaching,
manipulating, using our muscles, guided by feedback from our mistakes
-- are necessary, in order to develop normal vision.

Now speaking is "virtual" writing, just as writing is virtual speech. So
it is unlikely that we would become either aphasic or alexic, like the
passive kittens, if all we were allowed to do was to speak, read, and
dictate text. But without the further dynamic interaction with text
that is involved in real writing, and editing, and re-writing, I doubt
that we would ever generate some of the great prose stylists our
species has produced so far. (I make no case for teaching, because I am
not convinced that the higher-order skill of writing can be taught; it
is learned, yes, from reading and speaking, but also from practice in
writing and re-writing text, and not just dictating it -- at least by
those of us not among the lucky few who can spontaneously "write as
they speak" and "speak as they write.")

Nor should we forget the homology with calculation, a skill of which the
computer has relieved our fingers and brains -- to the great cost of
the numeracy of a subsequent generation. (Dan's suggestion that
speaking and reading skills are all you need for writing seems rather
like suggesting that seeing and walking skills are all you need for

Dan Sperber: "It is all too easy to speak of a return to orality. The
most profound effect that writing has had on human civilizations has
been to allow them to become truly cumulative instead of evolving
forever within the limits of human long-term memory. Far from reversing
these effects, the new technologies allow new forms of cultural
accumulation as well as new ways of mining the accumulated

Agreed. But the question is: What will those new forms and ways be? Dan
thinks instantaneous speech transcripts -- lexemes, really (one wonders
about non-alphabetic languages, and the motor aspects of the
phoneme/grapheme correlation) -- will be the "killer" application, with
reading & dictating then replacing reading & writing.

In contrast, I think that "skywriting" (the rapid online manipulation
of, and one-to-one and one-to-many communication using, digital text)
will become faster and faster and more and more powerful, no doubt
accelerated by vocal input in place of keyboard input, but that the
navigation and manipulation of the visuospatial graphemes is unlikely
to be optimal by voice alone, nor even predominantly by voice.

The real revolution, in my view, lies in having accelerated the speed,
scope, and interactiveness of writing (sic) to something closer to the
speed of thought (whose tempo is of the same order as the speed of
speech, for which our brains were specifically "co-prepared"),
rather than in its replacement by transcribed speech (Harnad 1991,
1995, 2001).

Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the
Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review
2 (1): 39 - 53

Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of
Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.)
Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp.

Harnad, S. (2001) Beyond Access and Impact: The Ultimate Benefit of

Held, R., & Hein, A. (1963). Movement produced stimulation in the
development of visually guided behavior. Journal of Comparative and
Physiological Psychology, 56, 872-876
Received on Sat Feb 02 2002 - 13:17:33 GMT

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