The Etch-a-Sketch and the Stone Tablet

Inscription in stone on Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.

Cable news is obsessed this week over inscription technologies. At issue is whether the political positions taken in primary elections are as erasable as the magnetic writing on an “Etch-a-Sketch,” as the Republican front-runner’s campaign manager imprudently suggested, or written “in stone” as the Republican challenger describes his own unchanging pronouncements.

Politicians would do well to remember that we live in the age of digital media which has disruptive inscription affordances — combining persistent memory with ease of participation by multiple voices of authority.

An Etch-a-Sketch is a magnetic re-mediation of the clay or wax tablet, which required the user to obliterate older messages in order to inscribe the new ones. Chalk and white boards work this way as well. The Etch-a-Sketch is also an expressive tool that affords virtuosity – its  ease of impression, portability, and legibility, combined with  its significant  constraints of manipulation indirectly by knobs, right-angle movement, and easy obliteration create a challenge and an enhancement of the power of the hand.  The easy shake-to-reset of the device may provide a wishful metaphor for the public’s short attention span, but complete obliteration of the past is increasingly difficult in the digital age.

Digital bits are easy to record on, like the magnetic filings of the Etch-a-Sketch  but they are much more plentiful and they need not be overwritten when new information is inscribed.  The pervasiveness of bits and effortless replication of information written in bits means that we now have a much longer cultural memory.   The easy availability of retrieving and replaying anything that has ever been said by a politician is making it harder for them to change positions without explanation or to deliver different messages to different audiences.  So Republican candidates like Romney who want to appear more conservative to win the primaries and more mainstream to win the election (and Democrats who move from the left to the middle for similar reasons) find it harder to look consistent. Even television pundits find themselves embarrassed by satirists like John Stuart and Stephen Colbert who gleefully expose their inconsistencies.

The advent of digital media also makes it harder to espouse the benefits of positions “written in stone.” Although stone is a wonderful, durable medium for offering unchanging principles, it works best when there is little to say and only one voice authorized to say it. Contemporary life, unfortunately for those who like simple certainties, takes a lot of explaining and the public sphere is populated by people with multiple views. This is largely the result of the growth of paper and ink, which replaced stone and wax tablets, and ultimately engendered the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Constitution of the United States, and the press who have the job of recording and challenging the statements of political candidates.

The digital medium can be used to strengthen the power of the single voice of authority, to suppress dissent, change historical records, impose surveillance, and take us back to the stone tablet stage of human culture. It can also be used to expand the multi-vocal, memory-rich, reasoned disccussion that is the ideal of democratic civil society. Designers should pay attention to the current debate over inscription and embrace the task of enhancing the affordances of the emerging digital medium in the service of more meaningful public discourse.

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