In his paper From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies, Dennis Baron details the pattern that society tends to follow in its acceptance of new writing technology. He points out that writing itself was once considered a technological advancement, and even it met with firm opposition from “traditionalists” such as Plato. Over time, the voice of the majority drowned out the voice of the traditionalists, and writing worked its way into society so firmly that now, thousands of years later, we can scarcely imagine a world without it.
Baron goes on to show how other writing technologies—from the printing press to the pencil to the computer—followed a similar pattern, facing opposition until their value rose and their cost fell. He also explains that many technologies we now use for writing were not created for that purpose. The computer was originally meant to do complex computations, not word processing, and the pencil was created by woodworkers to make marks on wood. Even writing itself wasn’t created for transcribing speech, as many would assume; it was originally devised as a method of bookkeeping.
What Baron shows in all of this is that writing technologies are not nearly as static as we may take them to be but are dynamic and ever-changing. The writing technologies we develop may not be accepted right away or even be purposed for writing to begin with, but as society learns to use them, they become more effective and better suited to our needs as a writing society.
The YouTube video “The Machine is Us/ing Us” touches on this dynamism in relation to computers and the Internet as writing technologies. The video begins by showing how static writing on paper is compared to digital text. Handwritten words with pencil on paper can be moved and changed, but not nearly as effectively as text on a computer. As digital text evolved, it became more interactive, able to link one page to another. As programmers developed HTML as a unified language to create and format web sites using digital text, however, they ran into the problem that “form and content became inseparable,” making it difficult for laypersons to get involved in web design. Thus, designers created XML, a new language that separated form and contend, making it easier for the general public to manipulate digital text and publish content to the web. In other words, digital text became once again more dynamic.
This dynamism was not limited merely to digital text, either. Videos became interactive, websites could “mash” together their information and services to serve new functions, and it is up to the users to organize all this information in a practical way. Just as Baron pointed out how writing technologies are molded by society to serve new functions beyond what they were created for, the video shows how we create “the machine” and continually re-design and re-purpose it to accommodate shifts in our society. In a way, too, “the machine” itself becomes a sort of mediator of these shifts, and it changes our society as much as society changes it.
Baron understood how dynamic these new technologies are, so he explicitly refused to make predictions on how they would change or what they would become. It is not that what the future holds for technology is beyond the imagination, but so many possibilities exist that we could not hope to know what path technological advances will take. We come up with new technologies more quickly now than ever, and we find new uses for what we already have on an almost daily basis. This is the point that From Pencils to Pixels and “The Machine is Us/ing Us” both make: that technology is almost like a living thing, always growing and changing in ways that we never bothered to imagine.