24.1932, Review: Writing Systems: Baron (2012)
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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-1932. Sun May 05 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.
Subject: 24.1932, Review: Writing Systems: Baron (2012)
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Date: Sun, 05 May 2013 11:45:48
From: Alice Horning [horning at oakland.edu]
Subject: A Better Pencil
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4076.html
AUTHOR: Dennis Baron
TITLE: A Better Pencil
SUBTITLE: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
REVIEWER: Alice Horning, Oakland University
This book consists of twelve chapters dealing with various aspects of digital
reading and writing by Dennis Baron, author of the blog “Web of Language” and
a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Preface. This opening section provides a brief overview of the book’s
chapters. Baron points out pros and cons of the increasing use of technology
for writing, noting that some scholars think the computer is the best thing to
ever happen and others taking the opposite view. Issues of cost and access
are important to everyone; these figure into both positive and negative
responses to the new technology. One of his main points is that probably
neither position is quite right; computers are just the latest in a long line
of technological improvements in writing and changes to reading as a
by-product of them.
Chapter 1: Writing It Down. While Socrates thought writing was a bad idea
because it would keep people from using their memories, nowadays most people
find writing to be at least useful if not essential, and highly trustworthy.
Writing is relatively new, arising in the last 6000 years or so. It has come
to be highly valued, even though critics find it impersonal. Writing
certainly had an impersonal start, since it began as an accounting tool, not a
record of human thought or speech (drawn from Schmandt-Besserat). Over time,
as writing has become increasingly digital, it has become subject to more
questions about authority and accuracy. The many forms of digital writing
raise questions about the relationship between speech and writing, and where
to draw the line between what is public and what is private, a key theme of
the whole book.
Chapter 2: TeknoFear. In this chapter, Baron focuses on those who hate and
fear computers as a by-product of their impact on people and society. He
examines the views of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, along with those of
Kirkpatrick Sale and John Zerzan, both anti-computer writers, and Neal Ludd,
whose name has become a general descriptor for those who resist technology in
all its forms. The computer is a contemporary agent of change, much as the
printing press was in its own time, as Baron notes, citing the work of the
historian Eisenstein. It is ironic that Kaczynski’s insanity was brought to
an end when he sent his anti-technology rant to the New York Times and it was
published using some of the very technology he opposed. Digital writing has
not yet given rise to what Baron calls “Frankentext” (p. 31).
Chapter 3: Thoreau’s Pencil. One of the more interesting chapters of the
book, “Thoreau’s Pencil” presents a history of the pencil and argues for its
virtues. Henry David Thoreau is well known for “Walden” but less so as the son
of the first pencil manufacturer in the US. Relying on the definitive history
of the pencil by Petroski, Baron shows how this technology has developed and
improved over time, partly a by-product of Thoreau’s improvements to its
design and manufacture. Graphite in pencils quickly became popular both in
woodworking for which pencils were first used, and in writing, at least in
part because graphite marks could be erased easily. While Thoreau disapproved
of the telegraph, he would, Baron speculates, approve of computers and while
he would have insisted on assembling one himself from recycled parts, he would
understand and use it as earlier writers used their pencils.
Chapter 4: National Handwriting Day. The death knell of handwriting,
certainly for business purposes, was not the computer but the typewriter.
Long before word processing, typewriters had replaced handwritten letters,
memos and other office documents. Writing by hand is still around, and is
celebrated by writing instrument makers on January 23, National Handwriting
Day. Considering both positives and negatives, Baron points out that
computers are faster and neater than handwriting, but require some technical
expertise not required to use a pencil. The typewriter changed writing too,
just as computers have, offering a uniform and impersonal version of writing,
a goal consistent with the penmanship systems like the Palmer method. Quality
penmanship was a school requirement and needed for office work as well. Now,
handwriting is thought to be more personal, individualized and revealing.
Finally, though, computers are coming around to simulating handwriting,
including fonts that resemble handwriting.
Chapter 5: Writing on Clay. To explore one of the oldest technologies of
writing, Baron assigns his students an array of writing tasks to try on clay.
He gives them blocks of ordinary modeling clay and passages to copy or
questions to answer, using the clay as a writing surface. When they work with
this “unfamiliar technology” (p. 72), students gain insight into the role and
impact of technology on writing and reading. The use of the stylus, the
inability to erase, and the difficulty of making changes to a text are also
key issues. The aesthetics of the text, now called document design, is yet
another factor, as are the color and size of the writing space. The
illustrations in this chapter, of old typewriters, computers and such, are
particularly interesting, as is the idea of trying out one of the oldest media
Chapter 6: When Wordstar Was King. Here, Baron reviews the history of word
processing, picking up on the previous chapter’s discussion of writing on clay
and moving toward the contemporary dominant use of Microsoft Word for writing.
After tracing a brief history of computers and pointing out that they were
not intended, originally, for word processing at all, but for numerical
calculations of all kinds, Baron describes his own first attempts to use a
mainframe computer for writing ordinary text, detailing the delays and
difficulties of waiting for final printouts and the challenges of editing.
Dedicated word processors helped, but not as much as personal computers did.
The main problem was that early word processors did not provide a clear image
on the screen of what would appear on a printed page (the WYSIWYG phenomenon),
made possible by the graphical user interface (GUI), allowing the use of a
mouse and leading to many new genres.
Chapter 7: Trusting the Text. This chapter explores the complex problems of
text reliability and trustworthiness. The memos about George Bush’s service
in the National Guard provide a case study of an unresolved textual trust
problem. Drawing on the work of historian Michael Clanchy (1993), Baron
points out that in Anglo-Saxon times, a face-to-face verbal agreement was the
only reliable way to make a deal. Then people moved to written documents,
authenticated by a cross or seal of some kind, as shown in several interesting
illustrations. Now, of course, signatures are the main way that a document’s
authenticity is established, especially when witnessed and verified such as by
a notary. Printed texts were originally viewed with considerable skepticism,
but now publication is usually seen as evidence of trustworthiness. New
technology now is moving toward the use of fingerprinting and other high tech
ways of verifying documents.
Chapter 8: Writing on Screen. The remaining and most interesting chapters
deal with the impact of technology on writing and more generally, on life and
relationships in the contemporary era, exploring in particular the major shift
in the definitions of public and private writing as more people read and write
online. New genres, including email, web pages, and instant messages seem at
first to undermine proper” language, but they quickly develop their own sets
of rules and conventions, known as “netiquette” (p. 142). Increasingly, the
shift is toward texting, a genre that Baron refers only briefly. This book
was published in 2009, meaning that the writing was probably completed in 2008
sometime, before texting became the phenomenon that it is now. He discusses
texting in the context of instant messaging as a new genre. At the end of
this chapter, Baron reproduces CNN’s guidelines for the appropriate use of IM,
email and other digital communication, reminding readers that these are
documents that can have important personal and professional consequences.
Chapter 9: Everyone’s an Author. Every forward step of technology has opened
up access to writing to more people by making it easier and cheaper to create,
preserve and share texts, most recently via laptops and Wi-Fi. The spread of
literacy makes governments nervous, whether democratic or not, as literacy
opens the door to a wide array of ideas and points of view, now chiefly in the
form of blogs. Baron himself has a blog called “Web of Language” and writes
regularly about language policy matters (http://illinois.edu/blog/view/25).
The spread of blogs has given rise to calls for their regulation, particularly
as an educational activity or when they lead to cyberbullying. Even the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading edge organization that supports
digital activities, has proposed some cautionary guidelines for bloggers and
others posting to the Internet. Various legal, personal and professional
problems can arise from ill-advised public writing on blogs. Baron reproduces
IBM’s recommendations for appropriate behavior with digital communication. He
ends this discussion of blogs by suggesting that they increase social contact,
though in a different way than do what he calls “space pages,” (p. 181) such
as those on Facebook.
Chapter 10: A Space of One’s Own. “Pageowners” (p. 184) can post all kinds
of information about themselves and their lives on their space pages on
Facebook or Myspace, or provide brief updates in a very condensed form through
Twitter, and they can present videos of all kinds on YouTube. Facebook and
other space pages raise the question of authenticity in a different venue than
print, since trustworthiness is an issue with postings that can be impossible
to verify. This concern persists now. At the end, Baron takes up issues of
safety and appropriate behavior on space pages that are major on-going
problems. These concerns lead to a discussion of wikis, continuously edited
web pages. Here, as with other space pages, accuracy, safety, authenticity
and verification are major issues. Wikis, because they are open to continuous
editing, tend to get corrected more quickly than other kinds of online
documents, such as the online “Encyclopedia Britannica”, but verification
remains an issue. Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary provide two major
examples of wikis.
Chapter 11: The Dark Side of the Web. In this chapter, some of the negative
features of digital reading and writing are explored to reveal the ways in
which the Web allows writers to perpetrate hate and exploitation. Monitoring
by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League shows the
growth in hate sites, as well as the general expansion of bigotry, among other
problems. Moreover, the Web can be and is controlled by governments that wish
to limit their people’s exposure to differing points of view. The Chinese
government serves as the prime example of Internet censorship, controlling
both behavior and access. The dark side of the Web also includes pornography,
insurrection, and misinformation. Many governments are beginning to work
toward control of some negative behavior online. Finally, there is the
problem of too much information, or perhaps more fairly stated, the lack of
organization and strategic management of information on the Internet. This
point leads Baron to discuss libraries and their methods of organization, such
as cataloging; such strategies are almost entirely absent on the Web, though
search mechanisms are improving.
Chapter 12: From Pencils to Pixels. The Google book scanning project is the
launch point for this chapter having contributed to a broad change in both
reading and writing. Books are increasingly digitized for reading
electronically. While Baron notes the growth of recreational reading on the
screen, here again his book is somewhat out of date, as the growth of
e-readers and other ways to access texts on screens (like smartphones) has
expanded and improved dramatically in the years since he wrote about such
developments. Other changes include increased tracking of people’s activity
online, whether by Google or another search engine, or even by Amazon’s
shopping site, leading to suggestions for additional purchases. Tracking also
reveals individual location, leading to ads for nearby shops or services that
might be of interest. Big Brother is indeed watching you, and advertising to
you, and hoping to sell to you. Privacy is an increasing concern. From a
different perspective, environmentalists are raising the question of the power
requirements of maintaining servers to feed our computer behavior. Those
high-security servers raise a different set of problems about the line between
public and private information. The adoration of computers by some but not
all educators, like their earlier taste for typewriters, is not supported by
data showing increased learning. So, finally, it is essential to keep in mind
that the changes to reading and writing arising from the development of
digital texts are just the “next stage” (p. 246) in the ongoing growth of
communication; it is certainly not the last stage and its future remains to be
Baron has some good points to make about the ways that literacy has changed as
we have moved into the digital era. Given his observations about widespread
illiteracy in the world, and the generational differences in the use of space
pages, he might have made a stronger case for ways to use digital reading and
writing to enhance critical literacy among American students and in the
country at large, a goal for which I have argued in my own work (Horning
2012). His discussion of important changes in our views of the nature of
public and private information in light of digital writing provides a
thoughtful analysis of this developing topic. In addition, his consideration
of the matter of verification or authenticity of information presented in
digital texts is a point that scholars and teachers must deal with as they do
their own research and review the work of both colleagues and students.
There are some other concerns: the headings within chapters are often cutesy
and there are examples of questionable editing, capitalization, punctuation
and similar issues. More importantly, the book seems like a bit of a
conglomeration of interesting historical topics without a clear focal point.
In many chapters, it is hard to see the point the author is trying to make, or
the point only becomes clear halfway through or at the very end of the
Baron does make good use of illustrations and offers many specific recent
examples of digital writing; the historical development of pencils,
typewriters and other technology provides a solid backdrop for his points
about the changes wrought by the move from pencils to pixels.
Clanchy, Michael. 1993. From memory to written record: England 1066-1307.
2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Horning, Alice S. 2012. Reading, writing, and digitizing: Understanding
literacy in the electronic age. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: Cambridge
Petroski, Henry. 1990. The pencil: A history of design and circumstance.
New York: Alfred Knopf.
Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1996. How writing came about. Austin:
University of Texas Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Alice Horning is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University,
where she holds a joint appointment in Linguistics. Her research over her
entire career has focused on the intersection of reading and writing, focusing
lately on the increasing evidence of students’ reading difficulties and how to
address them in writing courses and across the disciplines. Her work has
appeared in the major professional journals and in books published by Parlor
Press and Hampton Press. Her most recent book is Reading, Writing, and
Digitizing: Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age published in 2012 by
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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