Technologies of the Word: Reading and Writing in the Digital Age

by Dennis Baron

Presented at the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference
Chicago, IL Sept. 30, 2004

I’m showing this slide of a cartoon from the New Yorker both to reassure you that the end is, if not actually near, then near enough, but also because it has become apparent that to be somebody today you have a web site. In the good old days people exchanged visiting cards, then it was business cards. Now when strangers meet they exchange URL’s.

It’s not entirely clear why everybody needs a web sit of their own. There seems to be a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s involved, especially in the business world. Savvy consumers expect to find what they’re looking for on the web, even if they wind up buying it in a bricks and mortar store – and that’s a pretty new phenomenon. Ten years ago it was rare for anyone, business or private party, to advertise themselves on line. It was just about a decade ago that I was putting groceries down on the kitchen table and my daughter shouted, “Look at that box of Tide. It’s got a web page.” And yes, there on the side in small print was Why, we all asked ourselves, why would Tide have a web page? So I ran to the computer and yes indeed, Tide has a web page where you can get tips on removing stains, or how to organize a slumber party, or you can just chat with other Tide users.


Having a presence on the World Wide Web is becoming the rule and not the exception at colleges and universities as well, for classes, for administrative information, and for students. Many of my students have their own pages, on which they put pictures of their cat, their favorite musicians, their hobbies, or other decorative material of the kind that once graced the walls of their dorm rooms. I was naēve enough to ask a class whether anyone actually visited their pages. One student who had installed a counter said yes, he had lots of visitors, though he admitted that the material he posted was really just about him. It seems that the rule on the web is, if you put it out there, someone will read it.

Our lives, it seems, have been taken over by computers. And you know I’m not talking about the fears of the 1960s paranoids who thought computers would replace humans. Star Trek notwithstanding, that’s not going to happen any time soon. We study on computers. We work on computers. We play on them. We have ported our entire intellectual and social lives over to these machines, reading, writing, tracking down information and just plain chatting to the point where many of us spend more of our waking hours on-line than off.

The computer is changing the ways we read and write to the point where futurologists are heralding “word processing” as the biggest revolution in what I call the technologies of the word since the invention of the printing press, while the neo-Luddites fear that these new word machines will destroy the English language and put an end to communication.

The computer has made authorship available to millions: more people are reading, and writing, on line, and gaining access to knowledge electronically. In the process, it has spawned new genres of communication. On the downside, the computer has widened a gap, a digital divide between haves and have nots: most of the world’s people are illiterate and have little or no access to the electricity that is powering the latest changes in literacy. And the haves have to deal with information overload: more data is now available on line than anyone can reasonably expect to handle. If anyone with a computer and a modem can put information into cyberspace, how can we sift what is reliable from the chaff?

And how can we deal with “the dark side” of the Internet, the pornography and hate sites that more than balance out positive impact of the information superhighway and create entirely new issues of censorship for librarians, parents, and policy makers to deal with.

Electronic media threaten to eclipse traditional print sources: is this likely to increase literacy and democratize access to knowledge? or will it become a way to limit access to information?

Is the computer revolution socially liberating or does it herald a brave new world of mind control?

The charges and countercharges about the effects of the digital transformation will go unresolved for some time, in part because the effects of computers on our ways of reading and writing are both positive and negative.

The true impact of the computer is somewhere between these extremes: it hasn’t quite done for words what slicing did for bread. Nor will it bring about the long-heralded decline of the West. In the debate about the computer’s impact, both sides are right to the extent that the computer is “two, two, two things in one.” It’s a breath mint and a candy mint, or to paraphrase the old Saturday Night Live line, “It’s floor wax and a dessert topping.” The computer spreads and limits literacy; it disseminates knowledge and makes it more difficult to acquire; it speeds up communication and it’s too fast to control.

What I’d like to do today is to put some of the issues raised by computer communications into a historical perspective. Claims about the beneficial or harmful impact of reading and writing go back to the invention of writing itself. We have a long-standing record of resisting and mistrusting communication technologies and their products, and many of the promises or concerns voiced about today’s electronic writing and reading machines echo what’s been said about earlier writing technologies, even about writing itself.

For writing is a technology: it’s a tool developed for a specific, fairly narrow use, that was later adapted in ways that its inventors could never have foreseen –

The clay tokens from Susa in the Mediterranean suggest that writing was first invented not to transcribe speech but as a mnemonic device to record quantities of animals (sheep, goats, cattle) or commodities (jars of olive oil). Only later is it adapted for language recording, and once that step was taken, there was no stopping us.

As with all new technologies, writing had its critics. In the Phaedrus, Socrates warns that writing will weaken our memories: "this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."

We remember this because Plato wrote it down.

For a communication technology to be successful, we must learn to trust that technology. Then we have to learn to trust the texts it produces. Today we’ll look at some ways we’ve learned to come to terms with reading and writing technologies, and how they’ve changed the ways we do things with words.

Machining our words

Writing is a technology in that it is a way we have developed of using machines to record and play back words. Since the 1970’s we’ve referred to that process as “word processing.” Here’s a picture of one of the earliest word processors.

Theodore Roszak, a self-proclaimed Neo-Luddite, has warned against the growing use of computers in schools because they interrupt the natural flow of ideas from writer to paper: “Even user-friendly machines are a barrier that need not be there between the kid and the idea.” For Roszak, the old ways of pencil and crayon are best: “A child with a pencil in hand is ready to write. A child with a crayon in hand is ready to draw.”

To illustrate his point about the immediacy of pencil and crayon, Roszak fondly recalls the writing scenes in the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” where the young bard uses a goose quill and an inkpot to pen the masterpiece whose working title is “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” Like the penmen of his time, Shakespeare continually fiddles with his quill, preparing the point, sharpening it repeatedly, dipping it in the inkwell every couple of words, then discarding it when it wears out after a few pages and breaking in a new one. His manuscripts are full of ink blots, of words and passages crossed out or added in the margins or between the lines. According to Roszak, that’s the way to create great literature. Using only a simple quill pen, Hamlet and King Lear “were laboriously scribbled into existence by an inspired poet who cared above all for the depth, eloquence and intellectual force of his work and got right down to it.”

The key word in Roszak’s description of the Shakespearean writing process is “laboriously.” Shakespeare only got right down to writing after a lot of prep work. And I don’t just mean he thought before the wrote. Like today’s computers, Elizabethan writing tools were not exactly plug ‘n’ play. Writers of Shakespeare’s day not only maintained their own quills, they often mixed their own ink, and they had to sprinkle each sheet of paper with a powder called pounce to prevent the ink from being absorbed in a formless blot.

If all this fiddling and adjusting is not an unnatural, technological barrier between mind and page, equivalent in its own way to booting up a computer, clicking on an icon, or refilling a paper tray, then I don’t know what is. But Roszak feels that because the quill pen worked for Shakespeare it must be better than the computer. He says, “I’d like my students to ponder the fact that by the time they have located their style sheets and selected their fonts, Shakespeare was probably well into Act One, Scene One.” But it is equally likely that by the time these students have completed their assigned computer exercise, checked their email, copied some MP3 files, and moved on to an intense IM chat session, the Bard was still chasing geese around the yard to get his first quill of the day.

The pencil has also become an emblem of the good old days before computer technology ruined our lives.

Writing in the New York Times in 1994, Bill Henderson reminds us that in 1849 Henry David Thoreau disparaged the information superhighway of his day, a telegraph connection from Maine to Texas. As Thoreau put it, “Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Henderson, founder of the Lead Pencil Club, rejects today’s literacy technologies and wants to go back to the good old days when life, and writing instruments, were simpler. He points triumphantly to the likelihood that Thoreau wrote his complaints against the telegraph with a pencil that he made himself

While Thoreau rejected the telegraph, and while he did make pencils, he didn’t reject technology. But pencil-making for Thoreau was serious business; he didn’t just make them as a hobby -- In fact he was an engineer who spent much of his time perfecting the wood-cased lead pencils manufactured at his family’s pencil factory.

Thanks to his efforts, the Thoreau Pencil Company became highly successful, and Henry Thoreau financed his stay at Walden Pond and his sojourn in the Maine woods on the profits generated by selling pencils.

Thoreau, better-known as a literary romantic, was also a keen businessperson. When profits from pencils began to dwindle, he began selling graphite wholesale to the newly-developing electrotyping industry.

Even an engineer may be suspicious of new technologies. Just as Thoreau complained about the telegraph, and S. F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was suspicious of the even newer communication technology, the telephone. When Alexander Graham Bell offered to sell Morse an interest in the telephone, Morse spurned the offer, complaining no one would adopt a communication technology that didn’t make a permanent, written record of a conversation.

I don’t believe there’s any proof that writing has weakened human memory. Still, critics of new technologies argue that they will make us forget the old ways of doing things.

The biggest development in pencil technology in the 19th century came when American manufacturers learned how to attach the eraser.

  But schoolteachers feared that if students were allowed to use erasers, they’d weaken their ability to write. That’s because the educational philosophy of the day was “think before you write.” Crossing out wasn’t allowed – if students could correct their words after they had been committed to paper, that would be the first step in the decline of western civilization.

Of course, we know who won the battle of the erasers. The only pencils that come without erasers today are golf pencils – shows you what we think of golfers – and pencils used by artists. And even though writer’s guides still commonly advise, “Think before you write,” teachers get upset if students don’t revise what they write.

[Think before you speak applied as well, and one place where this persists in the American education system is the spelling bee, where once you say a letter, you can’t take it back, even if you realize it’s incorrect.]

When calculators were introduced in the 1970s, math teachers warned that if students used calculators, they’d never learn arithmetic. But today math students are expected to bring calculators to class and to use them on exams.

When we first started using computers to teach writing at the University of Illinois, in the 1980s, the instructors decided not to tell students about the spell checkers on their word-processing programs. The argument there was that if students used spell checkers, they’d never learn how to spell.  But on the first day of class an enterprising hacker found the spell check, and the rest is history.

One of the biggest complaints we hear about computers today is that they are causing a decline in handwriting skills. It’s true that many people complain they no longer feel comfortable holding a pen.

There was a time when handwriting was essential for success. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty, describes the role that good handwriting played in his ascent in the ranks of English society from office class to officer class (forgive me for not singing this):

As office boy I made such a mark
That they gave me the post of a junior clerk.
I served the writs with a smile so bland,
And I copied all the letters in a big round hand—
I copied all the letters in a hand so free,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
[“The First Lord’s Song,” H.M.S. Pinafore, Act. I]

Until recently, Sir Joseph’s copperplate, sometimes called “English round hand” because of its regular, rounded letters – was a style of penmanship that every office clerk needed to master. Even though by the seventeenth century books had begun to replace manuscripts as vehicles for literary and scientific thought, government and business depended on handwritten documents until well into the twentieth century.

A uniform handwriting system ensured that any reader could read any document. But in the 20th century the spread of the adding machine and the typewriter meant that uniform handwriting was no longer essential for business. Despite the fact that the office had moved toward mechanizing writing, the schools still made handwriting instruction a major component of elementary education until very recently, arguing that clear penmanship was an important social skill as well as evidence of mental discipline. Though neither rationale could stand up to much scrutiny, we still tend to think that handwriting mirrors personality and that sloppy handwriting like mine, while sometimes praised as creative or individualistic, is really evidence of sloppy thinking.

Now that many schools devote more time to keyboard instruction and less to script, nostalgists lament the loss of the good old days when handwriting was a ticket to advancement. Times New Roman is the new Palmer method, and so far as I’m concerned I don’t miss the old days when I was forced to practice O’s and slants for hours, my elementary school apparently under the misapprehension that I was destined to become a clerk.

I admit that handwriting is still important for addressing envelopes, and I guess they have to be legible . . .

And speaking of anthrax, new writing technologies, when they are introduced, are often feared as instruments of fraud. When they invaded England in 1066, the Normans brought with them their practice of using written documents to record the transfer of property. The native Anglo-Saxons, who were used to doing business orally and relying on eyewitnesses to resolve disputes, thought that writing was just a nasty Norman trick to steal their lands. In many cases, they were right. Few Saxons could actually read – so they had to take someone else’s word for what was in a charter. And that someone was usually a Norman. The Anglo-Saxons were used to verifying claims orally, by asking questions. Written documents couldn’t answer questions, the way witnesses could. You couldn’t look a text in the eye and see if its gaze wavered or it looked guilty. Letters on a page were unresponsive, literally dumb.

But documents were proliferating, and not all of them were false, and so readers had to develop ways of assessing the validity of a piece of writing. Learning to trust the text. They developed ways of authenticating documents.

This example of an 11th-century charter contains a cross, a mark made by an illiterate to indicate “I am the author of this message; this message has been approved by me.”  There’s also a seal attached, a visual indicator that would identify the author to readers of the document.

How do we know if a text is real?

Here’s something all of us have in our wallets – maybe not a big bill, but paper money, nonetheless. A dollar bill is, after all, a written text, a symbol that stands for a certain monetary value. It used to represent a dollar’s worth of silver on deposit at the Treasury, -- that’s why it was called a “certificate of deposit” that promised to pay the bearer on demand one dollar in silver. But now paper money is just a symbol of a symbol – a very postmodern concept of finance, yet one that we have come to trust.

Bills pass through our hands all the time and we rarely examine them. How do we know they are real? We know that counterfeiting exists. We know that counterfeiters are even more active than ever in this age of Photoshop and color laser printing. But unless we work as cashiers in a business which requires us to check $20 bills, we simply stuff them into our wallets or hand them over to total strangers, who accept them without blinking. If we handed out money on the street, people would line up for it. If we handed out poetry – considering what we do for a living poetry is something that you and I might consider a fairly trustworthy text, as well as something we could afford to give away to total strangers, people on the street would avoid eye contact with us and possibly turn us in to the Department of Homeland Security.

Despite the monetary fraud that we know to be a fact (there is really very little poetic fraud) – despite the counterfeiting of money, we seldom read the fine print or examine the signatures on our tens and twenties. We accept money because we have come to believe that there are safeguards in place to ensure the validity of the dollars that pass through our hands.

However, our eyes can deceive us, as this picture from a Scientific American article on digital manipulation, makes clear:

To see how easy it is to do this, I tried it myself, with a result that would be easy to detect if you knew what you’re looking for – though with practice I could have done a more thorough job of covering my tracks. Here’s what I did with a scanner, Photoshop, and about an hour on a very ordinary PC:

Digital text is even easier to manipulate than digital imagery, as we can assume from the next slide, a not-very-careful attempt to replicate a typed document:

New Digital Genres

The reality of fraud aside, more and more of us are coming not simply to trust but to depend on digital communication. Just as printing facilitated new forms of writing like the novel, the newspaper, or the concrete poem, virtual writing has led to the development of a number of significant new genres. Literary experiments like computer-generated poetry or random-access novels have proved interesting to only a small number of avant-gardists, and have been more or less dead ends. But mundane genres like email, IM, the web page, and the blog have captured our attention and in some cases have taken over people’s lives. How many of us can’t start the day without coffee and our email? Not to mention the on-line New York Times. And what happens to office routine when the server goes down? The telephone and the old stand-by, sneakernet, are becoming less viable options, particularly in the world of work.

While none of these upstart virtual genres has acquired literary status, all began in a haze of early frontier lawlessness, and all have settled down to some kind of conventionality as the electronic frontier became civilized.

Take email. You’ve all heard it faulted for its informality, its cavalier attitude toward spelling and punctuation, and its Mephistophelian ability to force us to send messages that we later regret.

But while it’s true that many email messages are, shall we say, relaxed (like this email I got recently from my daughter), their content telegraphic, slangy, or otherwise understandable only by insiders, much email mimics the conventional business letter:

or the carefully thought-out and well-designed advertisement:

The desire of email writers to be correct and conventional led to the presence of spell-checkers on email software and the rise of guides to correct email composition:

and it didn’t take long for email to mimic the worst qualities of junk mail

– this is just a tame example of the spam that graces our in-boxes, though apparently enough people send money to these and similar schemes to make them worthwhile.

The blog is perhaps the newest of the virtual genres. The word is a blend of web + log, and it is an on-line interactive diary that ranges from the boringly personal:

to the political:

to the commercial:

Instant Messaging, another wave of web writing, is now spreading beyond the world of high school and college as it invades the office. IM is terse, staccato, rapid-fire, and full of acronyms. It is sometimes criticized for being high on affect and low on content, but that tends to be the case only when IM is used in extremely informal contexts. When IM is employed to convey information people write more explicitly, using full sentences and more conventional grammar:

mrroboto:     i'm sooo sorry
ironchef:      what? uh oh...
mrroboto:     well, it wouldn't be so bad if i hadn't told you
mrroboto:     but....
mrroboto:    for some reason i thought you were my cousin
mrroboto:     so for a while
ironchef:      hahahahaha
mrroboto:     it was as if i were having this conversation w/ my cousin
ironchef:      hahahahahaha
mrroboto:     you're lucky, i didn't start speaking in tagalog
ironchef:      lol this is wicked amusing
mrroboto:     i'm sorry, it won't happen again
ironchef:      g2g
mrroboto:     ttyl

And under the heading of “catalog this”: there are some signs that digital culture is moving toward literary acceptance. There are now at least two novels that consist entirely of email exchanges, and an IM novel for teenagers called TTYL (“for talk to you later”) that consists of nothing but Instant Message exchanges among three friends.

The World Wide Web

The computer has turned us into a nation of authors, and the World Wide Web is our publisher. Unlike the world of print publishing, the Web eliminates the middle man. It allows writers to bypass the process of submitting their work, getting it accepted, being asked to do revisions, and having their text edited by professionals who check facts, eliminate repetition and contradiction, ensure consistencies in style, and design the final product to make it reader-friendly.

The Web presents us not just with undigested information, but with a lot of it. For example, I googled the phrase “chess sets” because I was interested in buying one, and in one half second the search returned 324,000 hits (I didn’t check to see how many of these were x-rated sites). No wonder we talk about information glut. With more and more people creating and uploading files, we seem to be drowning in text.

Is this information glut real or perceived? And more to the point, is it anything new? Various studies report that the rate of change of technology was actually much greater in the 19th century than it is today – and even in Gutenberg’s day critics faulted the printing for overwhelming us with things to read. And it’s quite possible that an ancient Sumerian would have approached a cache of clay tablets and wondered, “Where am I supposed to start?”

That’s exactly what happens in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (1938), where the narrator meets a character who seven years earlier had entered a public library and, faced with the collection of la science humaine – the totality of human knowledge – took the first book from the first shelf on the far right, opened it to the first page, and “with a feeling of respect and fear, made an irrevocable decision.” After seven years he had reached L. K after J; L after K. The narrator concludes, “and the day will come when he will say, in closing the last volume from the last shelf on the far left, ‘And now?’”

But we don’t just start at one side of the library and read through to the other, whether we’re in the Urbana Free Library, with its 200,000 books, or the Library of Congress with its 28 million books and 99 million other items (I found these stats in a few seconds from the web sites of these two libraries). The modern library has developed effective ways of searching the collection and retrieving relevant information from it to save us from the feeling of existential ennui that comes from a few thousand hits on Google.  If the catalogs, indexes, guides and reviews don’t do the trick, we can always ask a librarian, a human being who can help patrons get what they need from the library’s holdings.

But it’s not just the quantity of information on line that’s dizzying, it’s the fact that we are still developing algorithms for organizing it. Without a way of retrieving what we need, our searches will be frustrating. But that’s nothing new. Ancient Athens had the first municipal archive. But its documents were stored in jars, and they could only be retrieved if the archivist remembered where he had put them. After he died, the Athenian records became more or less inaccessible. Medieval books didn’t come with indexes and tables of contents: we had to invent those. And we had to invent card catalogs as well. Assuming you want your information to be accessible.

Search engines also provide the ability to control the flow of information: when I came to the U of I over 20 years ago there was a librarian who made up her own system for shelving books in the English library, a system that had nothing to do with Dewey or LC. If she wasn’t there when you went to get your book, you wouldn’t be able to find it. It was her way of controlling access to the books, and of establishing our need for her.

Google also skews the results it returns to you, showing you sites that pay a premium to go first, followed by ones which mention the search term most frequently. Politicians and advertisers are learning to design their sites so that search engines will give them more prominence.

The Web is still in the early stages of developing more context-sensitive search engines, but while web searching involves a lot less footwork, it will be some time before it will be as productive as a library search.


Despite the warnings of the doomsayers, the computer has not proved to be the death of the book – at least not yet. Though it has transformed written text into something a whole lot more multi-media than it currently is.

What’s next? After all, like the hits, the innovations just keep on coming. Computers can now speak to us fairly well, using text-to-voice software to tell us what’s on their screens in a vaguely Romanian accent. This is an essential tool for the visually-impaired, but I don’t think most people will abandon reading for books-on-disk anytime soon.

We can also use voice-to-text software to speak to the computer. It’s not altogether accurate, but developers are working feverishly to perfect it, and when they do it will be the next big breakthrough.

What will happen to written text when we bypass the keyboard altogether? When we all become Wordsworths, or Executive Vice Presidents, dictating our thoughts?

As for the Lead Pencil Club, which urges us to give up our technology and go back to the good old days, I think that if Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he wouldn’t be in the pencil business. He had too much business sense for that. No, he'd be drafting his complaints about the Information Superhighway on a computer that he assembled from spare parts in his garage.

Henry David Thoreau contemplating the garage where Steve Jobs built the first Apple computer

As for the future of writing on the computer, let me leave you with an updated version of what happens when you sit an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters. The personal computer has rendered the typewriter obsolete, so if you sat an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of word processors, you’d get, not “Hamlet,” but “Hamlet BASIC.”