September 19th, 2009


A Better Pencil

Is the Internet melting our brains? - Salon book review / interview:
    By now the arguments are familiar: Facebook is ruining our social relationships; Google is making us dumber; texting is destroying the English language as we know it. We're facing a crisis, one that could very well corrode the way humans have communicated since we first evolved from apes. What we need, so say these proud Luddites, is to turn our backs on technology and embrace not the keyboard, but the pencil.

    Such sentiments, in the opinion of Dennis Baron, are nostalgic, uninformed hogwash. A professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Baron seeks to provide the historical context that is often missing from debates about the way technology is transforming our lives in his new book, "A Better Pencil."


    I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.

Normally I'd post something like this on coslinks but I wanted to quote all of that, and I don't write more than a couple of lines beyond the link on coslinks. So I'll add this: A lot of the criticims I've heard over the years of things like LiveJournal or text messaging, have often made me think, "I bet this is the sort of stuff people said about telephones or postal mail when those were new."

I could just imagine people recoiling at the thought of having phones in every house because calling someone on the phone is such alower-quality act than dropping by their house for a chat. Which may be true, but misses the point: it looks at a new communication technology as if it were a mere replacement for something older, and is supposed to do the very same things. Compounded by the fact, of course, that when a form of communication is really new, people don't know how it's going to be used, they're still trying it out and figuring out the possibilities. And those who have partly figured it out can't easily convey what they've found to those who haven't used it that way yet, because it's an experiential sort of figuring out.

[ Though it does puzzle me when people who don't text, compare texting disfavorably to voice-calling. Yes, those are things typically done using the same device, but I should think the difference between them would be obvious. I'd expect people who don't text to compare it disfavorably with email, or instant messaging, or something like that. ]