Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writing as Technology

We are accustomed to think of books, and print in general, as old and familiar things. To us, books are the "real" which may or may not be supplanted by the "virtual" -- Kindles, Nooks, and Google e-books. This makes it a bit difficult for us to recover the sense that the book, like the scroll before it, and the clay tablet before that, is a technical development, one which initially seemed strange to a world which had not known any means of preserving words and keeping them "stored" for another day. There's a video, which I like to call "Book 1.0" on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. The book is no more a "natural" object than is a smartphone or an automobile; it has simply been around so long that we have gotten used to it, and now begin to fear that we may "miss" it.

Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit scholar and pupil of Marshall McLuhan, was one of the first scholars to realize and emphasize the technological status of writing. For Ong, writing not only changes our practical lives, it actually restructures our consciousness. This happens in a number of ways; our tendency to think of knowledge as persistent, as capable of being stored elsewhere -- and with it our sense that we ourselves don't have to precisely remember anything -- is one key effect. Beyond this, though, our whole sense that by naming, cataloging, and finding form in things that we are in fact re-figuring the world; that our mental abstractions seem to have shape and permanence; that there can even be a thing such as "capitalism," "Marxism," or "psychology" are also after-effects of writing and print. Print, by making massive amounts of text cheap to make, distribute, and preserve, accelerated these changes; with the dawn of the internet, this process has taken another enormous leap. The disappearance of objects -- the book, the music CD, the videocassette or DVD -- and their replacement by the mere making available of media streamed from somewhere else, is one notable result of this accelerating process.

At the same time, Ong emphasized the complexity and sophistication of the non-literate mind (he disliked the term "pre-literate" at it presumes a progression toward writing as inevitable). The ancient Irish bards had to memorize hundreds of lengthy poems; in the 1920's in Yugoslavia, Ong's mentor Walter Lord found pairs of men who could, by singing interlocked lines back and forth between each other, reproduce an epic poem of tens of thousands of lines. Such poems are as ancient as speech itself, and a few -- the Elder Edda, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- survived into the manuscript era, the print era, and are now downloadable as e-books. And yet, in this disposable era, when computers and cellphones complete the circuit from shiny new tech devices to e-rubbish in a landfill in a few short years, the old belief -- that writing something down preserves it -- may yet be reversed.

Some say that E-books aren't proper books at all. Some point to events such as Amazon's silent deletion of copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm from Kindle readers as a cautionary tale. The Pew Charitable Trust recently completed a survey of e-books and readers, and some of its findings are quite unexpected.

So where do we go from here? Will e-readers be the death of the book? Will a dusty old paperback become a sort of weird antique, joining 78 rpm records, 16 mm film, and Betamax cassettes in the dead media junkpile? Or will we always, whatever else we have with them, have books?


  1. To keep this short; books are going to stay regardless of how far technology gets. E-Books should not be considered books as they are just a new tool to read collective information from as the book was to the scroll, and the scroll to the rock. Stories are important and I would say there is a great trust in making a book before an ebook, perhaps many people wouldn’t think much of a book at first, but in years time, the book will stay and the ebook might be locked away behind some legal papers. If one day, man was to create a tablet where the device never gets outdated or never ends of power, I feel the book might become dormant as the scroll, but as many other civilizations before us, the empire will fall and these tools that seemed to be god like devices will cease to exist and books might well be the only thing they could rely on (too many apocalyptic movies are in my mind).

    (Kept this short because I feel I wrote similar to an older post last semester)


    Good question to ask: “Should we even consider e-books as books? I could look up information on my computer and tablet, I could look up an ‘e-book’, but is the e-book a book because it is named that or is my computer or tablet the ‘book’ because it is the device giving me the information? Should Facebook be considered a book because it has the word ‘book’ in it? It clearly has information from just about everything and stories from many posts that I could consider my daily reading.” I could go on-and-on with many examples about how the internet itself and the many “pages” within it could be considered an “e-book” and how the devices we take-in this information from could be considered books, but what do you think? Perhaps I missed the point.

  2. I like Edgar’s thinking on this one. The computer, tablet, phone are the modern page. They all serve as a medium for the author’s words. I personally enjoy possessing the physical book. I like its feel, smell and look. I have my favorite passages and stanzas dog-eared and highlighted. I keep my most treasured ones on a nightstand near my bed. I will say though that I am not totally opposed to the e-book. People NEED to read-using whatever means to do so. In a 2016 ranking of the best school systems is America, RI ranked 31 while are neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut, ranked 1 and 2 respectively. So if technology is making books and texts more accessible, with some even being downloaded for free, or allowing students to lease the material, I’m all for it.

    Now there is definitive proof that the old-fashioned way works too. There was a period for about four years where school children learned and took notes solely on computers. Many schools also stopped teaching cursive. It was discovered that many of these students were not retaining information as well as the former students who for centuries had recorded information using pen and paper. As far as the consumer, I do think with the resurgence of the LP and independent booksellers cropping up, patrons are missing what perhaps they thought they no longer deemed necessary.