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.
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.)