Understanding the Evolution of Writing Technology

Image credit: Laughload.com

Though more light-hearted than the many alarmed educators who decry that an age of illiteracy is upon us (see Berkmann: “TXTNG: THE GR8 DB8”), this cartoon satirizes the role of technology in distancing students from their education.

Wednesday morning, watching high school juniors attempt unguided research (rather than typing their first drafts) using questionable methods and getting equally questionable results, I pondered the utility of technology in the classroom. Later that day, deftly maneuvering between my laptop’s split-screen (Google Chrome on the right, displaying a pdf along with numerous tabs of research material, and on the left, Microsoft Onenote, with very organized notes in progress on my current reading and past class discussions) I remembered my early relationship with technology.; learning to type with Mavis Beacon and later creating a website about the Salem Witch Trials. It struck me not only how integral a part of my education technology had become, but also how long it had taken to condition myself to use technology so productively.

I think it is imperative to our understanding of the use of technology in the composition classroom that we view new technologies as another step forward in the evolution of writing technology.  We need to look back at the technologies which led to this point with an understanding of what they were made to accomplish, the damage they were posited to cause, and the actual outcomes of each.

Dennis Baron, in “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies,” holds up change in writing technology as a mirror to patterns in the development of literacy.  Although we rarely look at a pencil as a shocking technological innovation, Baron points out that the pencil “underwent changes in form, greatly expanded its functions, and developed from a curiosity of use to cabinet-makers, artists and note-takers into a tool so universally employed for writing that we seldom give it any thought.” And why should we? Today the pencil is a given; it sits in wait among our pens, highlighters, and dry-erase markers, prepared to do its duty whenever we need to jot a note.  When we use it to annotate a lecture or briefing, we certainly don’t contemplate how in its use we are separating the word from the living present.

As Walter J Ong explains in “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” the evolution of writing technology has allowed us to move from a completely oral/aural world, to one that incorporates vision and allows for numerous forms of division and distance that permit transformations of consciousness in society. “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing  its thoughts in oral form.”  In The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition Alexander Reid looks beyond how technology has affected our minds looking at the evolution of writing to propose a theory of the “virtual-actual.”  Reid explains that embodied cognition, consciousness and technology are interconnected, and that humans were predisposed to develop writing based on the social need to process knowledge outside of our bodies.

Armed with these authors’ contributions to our understanding of writing technology, I hope future educators will consider how serious a disadvantage their students will suffer if they are not allowed the opportunity to process knowledge the way many of their peers will have had ample opportunity to practice.


One comment on “Understanding the Evolution of Writing Technology

  1. Pingback: Get Digitally Literate Quick! | Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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