Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Font of information

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, Dennis Baron situates the computer as merely the latest in a long line of information innovations.

The f
ollowing review was published earlier this week on the books page at the History News Network.

This is an odd hybrid of a book. Part narrative history, part snapshot of the current technological landscape, and part meditation on the cultural implications of the written word, it's a little hard to see the whole from the sum of the parts when you're in the middle of it. Dennis Baron is a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champagne, and the book has the anthology-of-essays quality typical in volumes of literary criticism. This sensibility is commercially fatal in contemporary publishing, so it's probably for the best that it's masked -- best for author and publisher to be sure, but best for reader, too. If you make your way through this lively and well-written book, you'll have an edifying and intellectually provocative experience (though you can also profitably dip into pieces of it).

Three core ideas thread through A Better Pencil, all interrelated. The first, made repeated
ly, is that all forms of writing are forms of technology. Even a medium of communication seemingly as primitive as clay tablets involves mastering a series of skills and processes that take time to acquire and disseminate. (Baron makes this point in a chapter where he describes an assignment in which his students use a stylus to write on clay.) The remarkably useful pencil, first developed to mark sheep, is in fact a complex instrument that took a long time to perfect. British pencils were long considered the best, though U.S. production took a major step forward thanks in part to the work of Henry David Thoreau, who developed a new calibration of air and graphite that kept his family fortunes alive and gave him the means to go live in the woods for a while, a fact that the well-known techno-skeptic omitted from Walden.

The second
is that new writing technologies also generate widespread uncertainty and anxiety. Besides the challenges involved in mastering them, they engender fears that they will undermine the social fabric of the societies in which they emerge. Actually, the mere act of writing itself was suspect among oral cultures that ranged from the Ancient Greeks to the medieval Anglo-Saxons of Norman Britain, who suspected that their conquerors would use written language to swindle communities where personal relationships and public discussions were considered the most trustworthy source of social contracts. Baron notes that such fears were by no means wholly irrational; all new writing technologies bring with them a series of tradeoffs, and the potential to do good inevitably means the capacity to harm. Typewriters are wonderful, once you know how to use them, provided they don't get jammed and you have a replacement ribbon. Group e-mails greatly simplify collective communication, but the mere click of a mouse can cause a mountain of regret if you make an error or say something you'll regret. Baron has a whole chapter, "The Dark Side of the Web," surveying the various forms of fraud, hate, and oppression digital technology makes possible.

Finally, notwithstanding these issues, Baron comes down decisively as a supporter of new technology, and on balance sees t
he digital revolution as a decisive force for good in the modern world. Though computers are among the most sophisticated devices in the history of mankind, their adoption and evolution has been remarkably rapid. Indeed, one of the most striking parts of this book is Baron's chapter on the history of word processing, in which he reminds us of developments that many of us who lived through them are likely to have forgotten, among them that computers were never really developed with writing in mind -- as their very name suggests, they were made with mathematical considerations in mind -- and that the seemingly transparent Microsoft Word software so many of us use was preceded by clunky, complex predecessors like WordStar, WordPerfect, and MS-DOS. And yet, within a generation, it's possible to take a laptop out of a box, plug it in, and get to work. Literally child's play. Though he notes that the impact of computing on education is no more clear than that of the typewriter, he nevertheless concludes that "because of computers, people are writing more, they are creating new genres of writing [Baron includes discussion of instant messaging and blogs, among other kinds]; and they have more control over what they write and how it is distributed."

If there's one aspect of the modern world that gets stinted here, it's the interface of written communication with other media. These days text is only one component of digital experience that includes sound and image, and there's some reason to think that text will someday be a junior partner in this mix. Barron does at one point consider visual images in the chapter on the problem of authentication (there's a witty discussion of an image juxtaposing Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe, with observations that Lincoln would unlikely to be looking away from Monroe and the Monroe's taste ran toward Democratic politicians), but no real reckoning with the growing use of video online that in some cases is actually replacing print, as in how-to manuals that show rather than tell, or journalism that owes its media lineage more to television than newspapers. If it seems unlikely that written communication will ever disappear from human civilization, it's by no means clear that it will retain its prominence, any more than voice mail will survive the age of instant messaging.

I found myself in reading this book thinking about it as a book: it is an artifact no less than a chronicle. At one point I wondered if it might have worked better as a series of blog entries than a bound volume, especially because it lacks an entirely satisfying sense of narrative cohesion. But in its thematic unity and burnished prose, A Better Pencil embodies and honors its hard-copy heritage. Anchored in the past while looking to the future, its message both reflects and transcends its medium.