Baron: “From Pencils to Pixels” (1999)

In “Pencils to Pixels,” Dennis Baron argues that “the computer is simply the latest step in a long line of writing technologies” (17). He shows, through explaining the adoptions of the pencil, the telegraph, the telephone, and the typewriter, that new technologies go through similar stages of adoption, dependent “on accessibility, function, and authentication” (16). New technologies generally start in the hands of the few and are generally not used for transcribing speech (writing, for instance, was first used to record data or transactions). Their functions change and they become more accessible, and then their use spreads. Additionally, each new technology goes through an authentication stage, during which the authenticity of the technology is questioned and the technology is modified or accepted to be authentic. (For instance, 11th century written land deeds were seen as untrustworthy, and so material objects such as knives would be attached to them in order to grant them material authenticity, and seals and signatures were later developed to grant authenticity [22-23].)

I found the parts of the essay on authenticating most interesting, as this seems to be one of the biggest anxieties around the Internet currently: what is true? what is safe? what is legitimate? what is a “real” human being online? Baron notes that as students research online, that “verifying the reliability and authenticity of that information becomes increasingly important” (31). (Anne-Marie has a great blog post on these issues.)

Last term I read David Gunkel and Debra Hawhee’s “Virtual Alterity and the Reformatting of Ethics,” which takes up issues of “real,” “truth,” and “authenticity” in the virtual world, arguing that virtual systems call into question traditional notions of ethics because on the Internet, you can’t tell what is true or even what is human. I don’t want to go re-read the article at the moment, but Baron’s assertions that authenticity has always been an issue with new technologies seems to question Gunkel and Hawhee’s claims that the Internet is somehow that much different than other technologies. I do think it is different, but perhaps it is a different in kind(?) and that authenticity and truth has always been a concern when it comes to new technologies.

One other interesting moment in this book chapter that I want to address. Baron mentions the Unabomber’s attacks on computer scientists, but his relative ease toward humanists. Baron “[feels] left out” and asks “if humanists aren’t harmful, then what’s the point of being one?” (17). He discusses humanists’ relationships to technologies for a bit, but this strain isn’t picked up again. I didn’t get the sense from his essay that humanists are “harmful” (at least when it comes to technologies)… Just something I’m thinking about…

Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1999. 15-33.

Gunkel, David, and Debra Hahwee. “Virtual Alterity and the Reformatting of Ethics.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 18.3-4 (2003): 173-93.

This entry was posted in English 584 Postcritical Perspectives in Literacy Studies (Spring 2009), Ethics, Internet culture, New Media. Bookmark the permalink.

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