Tag Archives: A Better Pencil

Livres sans frontières and with search capability

Dennis Baron begins “From Pencils to Pixels,” the conclusion to A Better Pencil, by discussing Google’s digitization efforts as a means of reflecting on the various issues of authenticity, authority, and reader-/authorship explored throughout the book as a whole. Massive online projects like Internet Archive and Google Books may be to many (as Baron puts it) “the future of the book and its death” (227), the former because they re-produce easily accessible and searchable versions of out-of-print or rare texts; the latter because they re-present many of these texts with additions/substitutions that fundamentally change the way in which the text is approached. For instance, covers are often changed and advertisements and endpapers elided for the ostensible purpose of streamlining reading, yet this also makes a statement about what types of text are deemed important by those not necessarily invested in their study.

Original WW cover
This original cover of the Woman’s World was specifically commissioned after Oscar Wilde–an ardent proponent of tasteful ornamentation–took over the editorship of the periodical.
Google WW cover
Interestingly, this Google Books digitization not only changes the cover image (adapting it from an illustration in the first issue), but is in fact made from a facsimile of this periodical rather than an original.

I can safely say that without digitization, much of my own scholarly work would be nearly impossible, and this is likely the case for most literature and book history scholars at this point. The ephemeral nature and far-flung archives of many of the Victorian periodicals that I study, as well as the sheer bulk of their production, combine to make this a challenging field indeed for anyone not willing to use digital tools to facilitate access. Instead, one would have to either resign oneself to limited access, or face being overwhelmed in an avalanche of (often un-catalogued) moldering pages—a dichotomy Baron also hints at (231-232). Citing Anthony Grafton, Baron notes that despite the fears of techno-phobes, “scanning is no replacement for the actual physical print object,” not only because of accidental omissions, but also because “the print artifacts themselves tell the reader more than the words on the page” (229). Even so, scholarly sites committed to maintaining the authenticity (oh troubling word!) of the texts they digitize—such as The Yellow Nineties Online and the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals—are still naturally better at paying attention to producing fully searchable versions of books and periodicals in their entirety. Others, like the Modernist Journals Project, even create a hierarchy that explicitly shows which texts have been prioritized for digitization: the MJP Directory explains, “we have indicated on this list the journals we consider most suitable for digitization (in red type), and others that we consider interesting but would put second in order of priority (in blue type). Journals in purple type are those we have already digitized (wholly or partly).” This adds another layer to the ways in which remediation is often means of rewriting—at least in part—the text in question.

As once exclusively archival texts are re-mediated in online formats and made available to the public, these “publication” processes necessarily lead us to contemplate what is written over during digitization, even while other things are written out more clearly.

A Better Myth

Dennis Baron tweet - Monotask

In his book A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron sets out to accomplish two things:

First, he attempts to expose the false nostalgia that so-called “neo-Luddites” (29) possess concerning pre-digital writing technologies. He does so by explaining exactly how writing technologies such as the pencil, typewriter, or even handwriting are “products of machinery” with specific, historical, and often faulty “technolog[ies] of their dissemination.” Using Ted Kaczynski as the extreme example, Baron reveals that the anti-digital hearkening back to the “good ol’ days” ignores the specific and historical context of the past and, particularly, the material and industrial reality behind those writing technologies that we may not even consider to be technological.

Baron 23

In doing so, he shows that the only difference between the emergence of the digital writing technologies and the emergence of previous writing technologies is that we are the contemporary audience of digital technology; thus we are able to more closely see its bumpy road (in terms of failures and adjustments) as opposed to only seeing what it will one day become.

Baron’s second goal is to begin the great work of archiving this bumpy road of digital writing, finding patterns across digital texts in terms of genre and contexts. For both an audience that is fanatic in their support for new digital technologies and one that sees digital text as lesser than the printed word, Baron maps out the messy and occasionally chaotic recesses of the digital world while at the same time finding parallels for that chaos in print.

For instance, he is sure to acknowledge the charge of misinformation against Wikipedia and does not deny the problems inherent in the site’s structure. At the same time, however, he smartly points to unacknowledged problem of misinformation in printed text: “One study comparing error rates in Wikipedia to those of the Encyclopaedia Britannica discovered no significant differences” (198). In this way, Baron drives home the fact that pre-digital texts and writing technologies did not emerge from a vacuum and are open to as many (and often the same) critiques as digital texts and technologies.

Barthes Wiki

In a culture that has idealized (or ideologized) paper and pencil, I read A Better Pencil as a work of demythologizing (in the style of Roland Barthes). Having taken the naturalized myth that the pencil is the true extension of the body and soul, Baron not only rips that relationship between tool and mind right open but also forces us to ask right from the start: are there better tools and, if so, how can we use them?

Dennis Baron tweet - Lazy Sunday

Starting from there, then, and given the overwhelmingly positive spin Baron puts on the possibilities of digital media, we should also ask: what other or new myths do we need to de-naturalize that Baron might not have recognized?

Blogging Communities as Panopticons

In his preface to A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron asserts that computers and other emerging digital technologies “radically [reshape] how and what we say” (xiii) and create various discourse communities that operate according to their own sets of rules, either written/explicitly stated or not. In Baron’s estimation, these discourse communities function like an online version of Foucault’s panopticon: “As discourse communities form themselves in cyberspace, we see a clear, self-regulating pressure to establish standards for virtual writing and to police and correct those who violate emerging norms” (xiii).

Image(Photo courtesy of Aleph Journal, http://bit.ly/1cSYq74)

Although Baron focuses mainly on how such online discourse communities self-regulate acceptable language usage and general etiquette, I would like to apply his argument to how those communities also self-regulate the types of opinions that its members are allowed (or encouraged) to express.

In the chapter titled “Everyone’s an Author,” Baron seems to separate the kind of communities that blogs create from those on Facebook. For Baron, bloggers and their readers “constitute a community, even if they have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are reading a particular blog” (178), whereas Facebook depends on a system of communities-as-illusions, whereby users “accumulate collections of ‘friends’…without necessarily increasing the number of people they can count as actual friends” (179). What I would like to add here, though, is that the “pages” feature on Facebook functions in much the same way as do stand-alone blogs like WordPress, Blogger, or LiveJournal.  For instance, there are a multitude of fan pages on Facebook that are essentially a modified form of a blog: users can “like” or “subscribe” to such fan pages, follow the various updates and discussion topics, and thus become a part of that community of readers and writers.

With this similarity between Facebook pages and blogs established, I’d like to use an example from personal experience to illustrate how online communities self-regulate users’ opinions. I belong to several Pokemon-centered pages (ring the nerd alert) and a few weeks ago, a page called “pokelectronics” posted an informal poll about shiny Pokemon (regular Pokemon aside from their different color schemes and obscenely low encounter ratio) to see what fans’ favorites were.Image(Shiny Victreebel – the “regular” one has a red rim rather than a blue one; screenshot courtesy of deviantart, http://bit.ly/O1UDyW)

Even though I managed to capture the above-pictured Pokemon out of sheer luck, I still responded to the post saying that I thought shiny Pokemon were not worth the effort. Immediately upon posting my comment, I received almost twenty different direct responses attacking me. The most memorable was posted by a young male user, stating that, “That’s what people say who don’t have a shiny Pokemon,” which many of the other users “liked” to express their agreement. Since that incident, I haven’t posted on that page again for fear of another online witch hunt that favors the “hardcore gamers” over the semi-casual enthusiasts like myself.

But such vitriolic responses aren’t unique to Facebook. I remember experiencing similar moments during LiveJournal’s heyday when I used to post on a community dedicated to the reality show America’s Next Top Model, and I assume that the vapid subject matter naturally invited such catty responses.

Baron states that “the antitechnology side” faults computers because they “disrupt local communities and degrade the quality of modern life by isolating individuals from one another and tying them to machines instead” (178). Yet, the self-regulatory impulses of online communities as I’ve highlighted above generate a similar disruption and manage to isolate, nay ostracize, “individuals from one another” as well. To be a member of such an online discourse community is not simply to adhere to their rules about grammar and etiquette (for instance, many Poke-fan pages prohibit any heated discussions called “gen[eration] wars”) but also to submit to consensus, with which John Trimbur—a firm believer in the power of dissensus—would not agree (and nor do I). It would seem, then, that to be a true and good member of an online discourse community is often to be a victim of a cattle-call disease, unless you can develop both an acceptable writing style and a thick skin.

Trust and The Blame Game

While reading though  A Better Pencil,  I noticed that people experiencing the evolution of writing technology over time viewed it with the apprehension one might direct towards an invading army.

Not sure if harmless tool, or harbinger of the apocalypse.

Subsequently, once the new technology’s purpose and uses were established, it seemed that people immediately latched onto all of the horrible things that could happen, and panic ensued.


However, Baron conveyed the sense that the objects of this skepticism have shifted over time.  Socrates disliked writing because of its inability to actively dialogue, as he placed importance on direct intelligent discussion (4).  He recognized the inherent need for people and their thoughts to be a variable in the equation, and thus distrusted the developments because of the ways humans could use them.  Distaste for modern technology, however, seems to be directed at the technology itself, not the human minds behind it.

Which brings us to the blame game.  Baron writes that computers are “blamed by skeptics for a variety of ills” (xi).  Ned Ludd, if he existed, allegedly wrecked a loom because he “found the increased mechanization of the art of weaving alienating (25).  Placing the responsibility for perceived societal corruption on machines completely discounts their existence as creations of humans.  Technology will likely not develop sentience and the ability to create its own content without the programming or guidance of human action, yet many people seem to place suspicion and blame on the tools instead of stepping back and examining their role in its creation.

The one person in Baron’s narrative who appears to have held human beings responsible for technology and all of its effects was Ted Kaczynski.  As a disclaimer, I don’t advocate for attacking people with the intention of killing or otherwise harming them.  Kaczynski, even in all of his seriously misguided criminal actions, understood that it is people who further the mechanization of society, as well as use the conveniences it provides.  It’s the same idea of “Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people.”  Cell phones don’t kill people, drivers using cell phones kill people.  By targeting the progenitors and inventors of the things he so hated, Kaczynski demonstrated a twisted understanding of the ways in which people interact with new technologies.

As humanity explores new avenues for writing technology, we will be called, as Wesch notes, to redefine and reexamine what it means to interact with technologies.  Certain factions will continue to blame advances in language studies and composition tools for the destruction of civilization, and the trust and blame that we associate with the written word in all its forms will undoubtedly be the subject of further debate and revision for many years to come.  Hopefully, though, future critics will not forget the role that human innovation plays in advancing these tools.

The Reject of New ? The Rely on the New !

writing? what is it now?
writing? what is it now?

When clicked open the first page of A Better Pencil, I was planning to be thrown into a tedious mourning of the loss of the old, a repetitive nostalgia to “the good old days”—writing with pencils, and a stern criticism to any new technology without which our millennial’s heart can’t make a single beat. But, and here’s a big but, Baron did not come across such a terrible bore. He opens the discussion by dodging through all of my negative expectations with fascinating history debates on the danger of writing. From Plato’s Phaedrus, the invention of printing press, the telegraph, telephone, typewriters, to personal computer, word processors, webpages, blogs, and now social-networking sites, he identifies the usual pattern: we stare at each new technology in deep distrust, greeting them with dire warnings, but in time from accepting, adapting to relying on, new advances eventually integrated in our lives.

My mind flashed back to Mark Helprin’s book Digital Barbarism when Baron said we have a “common tendency to romanticize the good old days” often fail to appreciate how new technology can benefit society and themselves. While Helprin notes that Internet is a “waste”, blogs are “sub literate” and Wikipedia are written in the way “Popeye” speaks (107), Baron sews his argument with the metaphorical device “Pencil” that many in the field of composition have over-reacted to the roles of technology and writing, and in fact that writing has never ceased to be technology. Writing starts with a simple pencil while new media and Internet is just another pencil as writing tools.

However what I find hard to be convinced is that he appears to view the sweeping technology just as another form of pencil.  Even though Baron grants that writing has always been technological and pencil is nothing short of creative marvel than an iPad, he does not seriously acknowledge many revolutionary features of modern digital form of writing. For one thing, comparing with erasing a pencil-written text, digital writing allows us to add, delete, edit without any trace behind. Anything writing online, from MOS (Microsoft Office Suites) to cloud sourcing blogs, notes, shared documents, can be accessed and edited by multiple audience (permission depends on individual cases) with no mark left behind. Lots of social media news groups (Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook,etc.) and Wikipedia articles offer revision and editing even after posting the article for the global to see. For another, digital writing’s auto-spelling- correction, grammar-checking functions downplays the importance of memorizing correct spelling or sentence structure. In the third place, the impact of speed and shareability of message delivery is too big to be neglected. A click on “Send”, texts will be delivered/posted in a millisecond, shared by a group of audience, from a selected community to the entire wired world, not to mention each of reader in the community could leave their individual opinions by commenting, “Like”, “Dislike”, re-tweeting, etc.

Text Advanture interactive interface
Text Advanture interactive interface

The message now rolling like a snowball through network, sticking each receiver’s ideas on its body, and ultimately casts huge influences to us larger than a tool of writing could measure up with.  Text Advanture pops on top of my head as one of the most popular interactive shareable text media platforms:

In the same thread, once constricted in kindergarten classroom or bedtime, storytelling now embraces players around the world jumping in to throw creative sparks:

Scenejo, Interactive Storytelling

A Better Picture: The Use of Images in Writing

During his discussion of his writing class’s clay assignment, Dennis Baron tells us that his students’ pickiness over clay color is a reminder of the fact that “given the chance, writers will focus on the artistic elements of writing as much as on the content” (74). Baron then goes on to add that “many writers like to experiment with the aesthetic variables of whatever they are using” (83).

Yet, as academics, this desire for aesthetic appeal is one that we are usually denied in our professional lives—we are not “given the chance.” The vast majority of the work we do is formatted, standardized, and imageless.

One of the few opportunities that academics have to break out of the confines double-spaced text only documents is when they make the transition into writing a book. Suddenly, images are not only allowed, but encouraged. It seems to me there are various reasons for this shift in aesthetic appeal, including a change in the formality of the work, an appeal to a wider audience, and to provide some distractions lest the written material become monotonous or dull.

Images have the ability to add things to a text that would be otherwise impossible—or at least extremely difficult—to convey, but this ability does not mean that they should be added simply for the sake of adding them. Rather, authors have a responsibility to use images in a way that builds upon or enhances the written component of the work. We can see distinction between these two types of image use in some of the many images that Baron includes in A Better Pencil.

Images that do not add to a work are those that are not fully discussed within the text or those that do not add to the purpose of the text. In Baron’s text, an example of this type of image is his inclusion of a picture of Ted Kaczynski (20). This picture—which the vast majority of readers would already be familiar with anyway—is included because Baron is discussing Kaczynski, not because the picture itself adds any value. There is nothing about Kaczynski’s image that builds upon Baron’s discussion of his anti-technology terrorism.

Nothing to see here.

But there are other moments in the text when Baron uses images to enhance and clarify his writing. Later in the text, he includes pictures of a photoshopped Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe (117) and an early portable dumb terminal (97). Both of these images help the reader follow along with Baron’s argument and provide clarity about the claims that he is making. Importantly—and unlike the Kaczynski image—they are also both fully discussed within the text itself.

While academics of the past have primarily only incorporated images into their writing through books, the increasing popularity of digital writing stands to change that completely. Like books, digital writing provides a perfect opportunity for the inclusion of images, and, also like books, demands that digital authors use images in a way that engages readers and enhances the text.

Tracing Fingertips

My mother yelled down that all four of us kids were to come upstairs immediately. Her face, normally placid and loving, showed signs of irritation and anger. As we gathered in the kids’ shared bathroom, she leaned forward, directing our attention to the mirror over the sink. Someone had made, in the shower steam, a drippy print: “Clean Me Off.” Mom wanted to know who had authored the bathroom command.

Since the advent of writing, readers have sought assurance of the identity of the person who is “speaking” to them. In moving from receiving news and information through oration to getting it through written language, readers lost the physical assurance of the speaker as originator (or at least replicator) of the words being communicated.  Readers who lay their own hands (or eyes) on a text have a strong drive to know whose fingers carved, scripted, painted, typed, or handwrote the words. “Whose words do I read?” we ask. 

In A Better Pencil, Baron shows how each step forward in technological innovation brought with it unsettling anxieties. The process of authenticating texts—confirming and assuring readers of the author’s identity—lagged behind each new innovation in composition. As the users of new writing technologies increased, the rogue quality of possible anonymity was eventually mitigated as each era found its own ways of determining authorship. 

As anyone who has ever lost control of an email or social media account or caught a computer virus knows, it can be highly embarrassing to have your byline attached to a fraudulent email or link. Baron’s assertion that “all new writing technologies bring with them the potential for fraud” (120) is certainly true, but the probability of encountering fraud and untrustworthy content is the necessary flip side of increasingly democratized access to composition and publishing.

It seems that charges of fraud (may frequently, though not always) disguise an unwillingness to relinquish control of content and publication now made more democratic than any other time in history. In the cases of unlicensed printing presses up through unsigned blogs, new writing technologies enable people to “bypass many of the long-established winnowing and qualifying procedures that we have come to associate with writing” (Baron 163). In other words, a widely (though far from universally) available means of writing and reaching an audience reroutes texts past traditional monitors/arbiters of taste, quality, and accuracy. We now have a “cyberworld of writers without borders” (163). To the masses for whom publishing through traditional avenues isn’t possible, the internet offers a free–both monetarily and ideologically–place to share ideas and respond to the ideas of others.

Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (Flikr through Creative Commons)
Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (by Joff Hopkins on Flickr through Creative Commons)

While celebrating this in the abstract, those who previously controlled the means of publishing (if not producing content in private) now face a digital world in which anyone who wants to can find a platform to speak/write. As Baron puts it, new technologies help “upstarts” “take advantage of the destabilization produced by new communication machines in order to take text and talk in new directions” (162). Those previously in positions of power have the most to lose when so-called “upstarts” challenge the status quo, and so critiques of new writing and printing technologies as fraught with fraud danger may hold both truth and occlusion.

After all, part of the compulsion to know who wrote something is to understand their ethos as well as to judge their work. Readers mete out punishment or heap reward on the writer based on what we think he or she deserves, and online anonymity creates a readerly/writerly breech.

Back to the bathroom mirror writer, who created his or her own huge and highly visible paper: I understand my mom’s irritation about the writing on the mirror. The writer left an unsigned mess(age), in smudges and markings. But I also must point out that my mom’s encouragement to express ourselves through writing implicitly carried with it very specific (and themselves unwritten) rules about where, how, and what to write. And ultimately, when it came to reading the writing on the mirror, the message itself mattered to her much less than the author’s identity. (And I swear, it wasn’t me.)