Blog Post

The End of Text As We Know It

There's a delightful and interesting and non-paranoid interview with Dennis Barron in today's Inside Higher Education.  Barron has just published, In his new book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press) that looks at "the history of writing implements and communication technologies, and explores the digital revolution's impact on how we write, how we learn, and how we connect with one another."  


It's not guaranteed that knowing some history makes one more open to the changes of the present and the future--but it helps.  What this calmly provocative interview does is remind us both of what isn't new about today's version of "new" and what is.  For example, when asked to read the crystal ball of what will come next, Barron says that no one knows, except it is sure that changes to how we write, read, and publish our ideas will continue to come rapidly and, humans being what they are, new devices and methods will probably be turned (in the future as in the present and the past) in some direction unintended by their creator.  


He notes that when voice-transmitted text is commonplace, we might well return to transcription as a writing method.   He mentioned Homer.  I thought of the long novels of Henry James, dictated to what was then called a "typewriter" (the man who controlled the typing on the amazing new device).   James's sentences became longer and infinitely more complex, with nuances twirling within nuances, as he talked them outloud to his amanuensis and made use of this amazing new device.  For those ready to proclaim future doom, it is useful to recall history.


Barron also mercifully puts aside all the "dumbest generation" silliness about how new technologies are leading this generation to the dogs.  Yet Google's wordlwide project to digitize all texts?  That has him shuddering a bit in his boots.  What does it mean when a private company with private books has a lock on all the world's print publications?   Wikipedia's goal is to make all the world's knowledge available to all the world's people--for free.   Google's goal is not quite so altruistic.  Barron seems to place his concerns were they should be.

I'm ordering the book right now.    Read the interview here, at Inside Higher Ed, and then let us know what you think.  


HASTAC has adopted a motto (thanks again, Steve Burnett!) of "Learning the Future Together."  As a historian of technology, I believe that you learn the future together by being deeply informed about the past before you shoot off your mouth about the glories that went before, the disaster we're in now, and the catastrophe looming ahead.  Maybe, maybe not.     What this interview reminds us is that we're by no means the first people to encounter technological change nor the first to be convinced the younger generation is going to the dogs.   Those insights alone should remind us to see what is and what we can do with it rather than wring our hands about that which is no longer relevant, available, or inspiring to the world we live in now. 


Here's the url for the interview:


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