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Confessions of a Recovering Neo-Luddite
on April 9, 2010
Have you ever felt yourself longing for the "good old days" when you could just sit down at a typewriter and clack away to your heart's content? Or better yet, take out a freshly sharpened pencil and practically feel your thoughts pouring out onto the page? If so, then you're not alone. According to Dennis Baron's A Better Pencil, people from all walks of life have been publicly mourning the loss of older (and therefore somehow purer?) writing technologies, while at the same time expressing those opinions through word processors and websites. Baron adds that such laments are nothing new. People have mistrusted emerging writing technologies ever since the first marks appeared on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. Several millennia later, Plato warned against the ill effects of writing on human memory, despite being among the 10% of Athenians who could read and write. Jump ahead another two thousand years, when the scribes of the Middle Ages feared that Gutenberg was doing the Devil's work, although they were probably more afraid that his printing press would put them out of a job. Likewise, Thoreau's disparaging of the telegraph may have had as much to do with protecting the family business - Thoreau Drawing Pencils - as it did with protecting the environment. Even the humble pencil, beloved of neo-Luddites everywhere, was once decried because its erasability meant that students no longer had to carefully plan essays in their heads before committing words to paper. Instead, they could (god forbid!) revise as they wrote.
Today, computers allow us to revise in ways that don't leave so much as a smudge behind. For example, I can revise this review a hundred times and no one but me would know (although it's fairly obvious that I didn't). Most newsgroups and wikis allow for revisions even after posting something for all the wired world to see. At the same time, critics claim that web writing (e.g., email, IM, blogs, etc.) causes writers to ignore the well-established conventions of grammar and spelling, thus posing a threat to the survival of the English language. But as anyone who's ever taken a linguistics course knows - and as Baron is quick to point out over and over again - languages change, and one of the reasons for this change is the impact that new technologies have on the way we think, talk, and write about the world.
One might expect that by repeatedly driving home the same point throughout much of the book, Baron would come across as a terrible bore. To the contrary, he is insightful, humorous, self-deprecating, instructional, and encouraging. His detailed history of the pencil, from its humble beginnings as a carpenter's tool to its current status as an emblem of simpler times, helps us reposition our hopes and fears regarding computers in a historical context. Baron understands our reluctance to embrace new technologies, going so far as to imply that it may be in our best interest as a species to maintain a little healthy suspicion (imagine what would happen if we ALL embraced each new innovation with unbridled enthusiasm!), and he certainly doesn't shy away from discussing the "dark side" of the Internet. But as Baron points out, the pencil is itself a technological marvel, one that required as much engineering know-how in its day as the iPad does now. That realization makes any anti-technology screed seem all the more futile. The fact remains technologies come and go. Perhaps the best those of us with a nostalgic streak can hope for is that some of the older ones will continue to coexist with the newer ones... at least for a few more decades.