Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Better Pencil

Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Predictions of how the continuing development of computing technologies is changing the manner in which we read, write, and learn continue to pour out from every possible arena. English professor Dennis Baron gives us a sensible examination of writing and reading practices in the context of the history of communication technology. “Computers and the internet are neither the best developments in the history of writing nor the worst,” Baron contends. “They are simply the latest in a series of innovations in how we do things with words” (p. xv). He discusses writing as a technology; how each new writing technology has been greeted with suspicion (and how technologies are not neutral); and considers the impact of the technologies of the pencil, handwriting, writing on clay, and word processing. Baron is especially intrigued by issues such as concerns about learning how to trust texts, a matter that is not unique to our era as so many have suggested. The primacy of print didn’t happen overnight, but it emerged very gradually, and, moreover, digital text will not be the last means of representing information. Baron is, in fact, optimistic as he looks backward to assess the future of reading and writing. Writing on the screen deepens and broadens writing, he believes, and there are more writers and readers than ever before, embracing the virtual word. Such optimism extends from his way of seeing technology: “By definition it is artificial, a device fashioned for a purpose. Pens are no more natural than keyboards, penmanship no better at reflecting the human spirit than digitized text. But for those of us who have gotten used to keying in our words, working with pens and pencils has already begun to seem less natural, less automatic, less of a direct connection from mind to text, than going online” (p. 66). Some day, keying in words may seem less natural as well.

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