In “Why technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale,” Jim Porter makes the case of how technology impacts and benefits writing through his personal narrative. He details how technology impacts writing based on the applications of the technology and the disposition of the writer. Each technology has a different purpose, and through his story of developing as a writer, he tracks his development through different composing tools (handwriting, typewriting, and cyberwriting). Porter’s story demonstrates how each composing tool not only influences writer’s practices but congeals to the writer. He asserts that composing tools work with the writer in unison, and therefore he suggests theorist and researchers need to celebrate the “variations of form and the complexity and fluidity of identity” that is being a digital writer (388). His examination ends by pressing readers to shift from a humanist viewpoint of “whether technology is good or bad, useful or not, humanizing or not” to the posthumanist viewpoint of “how we can shape technologies to improve human life” (388).
Porter discusses his early experience with writing teachers and learning” good penmanship (that is, readability) mattered” (377). Albeit my experience was different than his, but I could relate to his “hours and hours of disciplined handwriting practice” (377). I moved regularly as a child, and because of that I never learned how to write in cursive. By the time I reached high school, most of my teachers wrote in cursive on the board or in my feedback and I could barely decipher what they wrote. I spent hours and hours teaching myself to write and read cursive as a teenager so that I could read my others penmanship. Now I look at technology and I work with my old high school teachers who have started doing everything on PowerPoint, and I realize that cursive is becoming less and less a requirement “in terms of the credibility and character of the writer” (377).
Porter also discusses his experience learning to type. He recalls his learning how type on a typewriter, and “typing and retyping the same lines over and over” (378). Although I did not learn to type using a typewriter, my early education placed extreme importance on learning to type. From first to eighth grade I was also forced to retype the same lines over and over again, but I did not get the same experience of “examin[ing], reread[ing], contemplat[ing], and refin[ing] my style” (378) because I was simply reproducing in my typing classes. This made me think how valuable it would have been to practice my own writing in typing courses instead of reproducing sentences like ‘The dog ran up the hill.’ I have also regularly thought about how writing and engaging with process by retyping has dramatically changed in the era of the word processor. I very rarely use things like my spell or grammar check first when reviewing an essay on my word processor because I feel like that distracts from my own reflection and refinement of a text.
While word processor programs make completing writing tasks highly “efficient,” I cannot help but feel like I am missing out on some sort of deeper writing process by always having to engage with my computer. When I was younger, I could not go into a bookstore without buying a journal. I have started countless journals where I have written daily in the first 15-20 pages and then slowly stopped and forgotten about the journal in favor of consuming my time with technology. But each time I return to a bookstore and head for the check out I cannot help but pick up a new journal thinking that somehow, some way putting pen to paper will make me a better or more active writer. It took me years to realize that I was already writing and journaling by emailing, using social media, and keeping up with my school and work assignments. I was already improving my process by using technology despite how the transaction of typing versus writing may make me feel. Composing tools may vary and be ever evolving, but they all improve process if one is still participating in the transaction of creating text.
Both Jim Porter’s “Why Technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale” and Derek Van Ittersum and Kory Lawson Ching’s “Composing Text/Shaping Process: How Digital Environments Mediate Writing Activity” discuss the role of aesthetics in the composing process. Jim Porter’s “cyberwriter’s tale” emphasizes the importance of design in Porter’s techno-literacy education, noting that his “experiences at Purdue taught [him] about writing as collaboration, as well as about writing as design” (382). Porter believes that the revolutionary potential of the computer is apparent when we take a “scenic/contextual perspective” and see writing produced on computers as having a major social impact. Further, Porter argues for a posthumanist conception of identity, which highlights connections between humankind and machines based on “fluidity and hybridity” (388).
This connection between writers and machines is also taken up implicitly in Van Ittersum and Ching’s piece, in which they examine distraction-free writing programs and practices. Van Ittersum and Ching point out “that software applications and interfaces can also be selected and structured to tune consciousness in writing activity” (“Cultural-Historical Activity Theory”). This focus on how consciousness might be “tuned” or adapted to the writing program of choice seems to draw upon Porter’s assumption that human identity is bound up with the technologies we use, and that our very consciousness might be altered or affected by our interaction with particular technologies. And just as Porter stresses the social impact of new technologies, specifically in what he sees as the “revolutionary” possibilities that emerge from social networking, Van Ittersum and Ching note that “softare applications are thoroughly ideological and rhetorical” (“Distraction-Free Writing Environments”), thereby agreeing with Porter that there are very real social and cultural effects of technological use. Once we understand the profound social impact that new technologies are having, we can analyze how they operate within particular “social and ideological context[s]” (Porter 384).
Yet it is not just the ideological, but the profound cultural effects of new technologies that sparked my interest most in this topic. As Porter states, “the revolution, if there is one, is the social one of interconnectivity. The writer and the machine have become one — the cyberwriter — but we haven’t yet engaged the full implications of the metaphor” (388). I think it is clear that interconnectivity has changed the fabric of our writing lives in indisputable ways, and that there are concrete benefits to be realized from social networking and participation in virtual communities (not the least of which is the amelioration of loneliness and isolation in an increasingly fragmented and depersonalized modern world). And yet, when I ponder the other social implications of the “technology revolution,” I cannot help but think about the profound and widening social inequalities that technological changes have fostered. Economist and New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman has spoken eloquently about how the very machines celebrated by Jim Porter may also be responsible for the displacement of workers today. So the “fluid” and seamless interconnections between writer and machine that Porter applauds, and the consciousness-tuning capabilities of distraction-free writing programs that Van Ittersum and Ching explore, may not take into account the other side of this equation: the human effects that technology has had on a national and global scale, including widespread displacement of workers in our current economy. At the same time, the creators of new technologies, the “technology moguls” like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Ellison, and Google’s Sergey Brin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Brin and Larry Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Page, continue to reap the financial benefits of this “revolution.” This widening chasm of inequality leads me to ask whether the increasing “interconnectivity” that comes from social networking may be a convenient distraction from political questions about how technological changes may be contributing to social inequity. To echo Jim Porter, we need to inquire into how we will use technology as well as the stakes that this would involve (388).
An article in The Guardian investigates this topic quite provocatively: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/jul/01/new-tech-moguls-robber-barons. What this gets me thinking about in particular, is that the very openness, freedom, and possibility that are often associated with the “technological revolution” may in fact belie a hidden truth. This truth is that we are actually not quite as free to shift our identities, or as capable of revolutionizing our relationships via the internet, when those who control these technologies remain unaccountable and removed from the concerns of everyday people. The widening chasm between haves and have-nots is only hardening and deepening, it seems to me, and this seems to undermine what may appear to be the “revolutionary” possibilities of the internet age.
Finally, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman speaks about how technological changes have contributed to the economic divide in the following video, which I’ll leave as my final thought for your consideration: