Saturday, April 3, 2010
A Better Pencil Readers, Writers, and The Digital Revolution by Dennis Baron
Dennis Baron is a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois. He is writing about how technology expands and creates new varieties of communications. He includes his own experiences with early computers, Wordstar, and word processors. He is writing about the history of technology from the point of a social scientist.
He starts with what it means to transition from an oral culture to one where everything is written down. I liked Plato's idea that writing everything down limits memory. Written records started as a means to record business transactions.
In succession we learn about the development of writing tools and methods; pencils, clay tablets, handwriting, typewriters, early wordprocessors and computers, and the modern digital revolution are covered. In each section there are interesting anecdotes. Henry David Thoreau designed lead pencils. Pencils are still the most used writing implement.
There is a theme that each successive generation of communication technology expands the variety and amount of communication that occurs between people. It does not necessarily improve the quality of communication or education. More people are reading and writing, not necessarily writing better things. Another analogy is the move from the letter to the telegraph to the telephone. There is more communication with more people. Is it better?
If we think of the Google Books Project for example, the objective is to make all the books in a number of universities and libraries available to the public. Because the book is in the library it must have some value and be scanned into a database. Initially the goal is to push all the information into one place. The attempt to organize and clean the data was not the first priority. The idea is that it is a good thing to have everything available. There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.
Dennis Baron includes arguments for and against the advancement of writing technology. He argues that digital technology is another step in a continuous line of progress from the pencil to the typewriter to the computer. Is it good that everyone can now be an author? Are face pages like myspace and facebook safe places for people to communicate? Is Wikipedia a reliable source of information? We get a sense that how we choose to use the technology is as important as the technology itself.
A Better Pencil includes many illustrations, black and white photographs, and anecdotes. He quotes many different people including Plato, Sartre, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and many others. There is an extensive index and notes. The book is easy to read, well laid out, and entertaining. If you are interested in the history of the written word, this is well worth reading.