In by far the most engaging post I have read in a while, Dennis Baron, dares to challenge our lives in today’s modern age by making a claim that computers and technology in general, in terms of literacy, are nothing more than a mere stepping stone the way the pencil once was.

Baron’s writing is strong and while he never directly compares a computer to a pencil in terms of functionality, he draws multiple parallels between the two by going very deep into the history of the development of the pencil. The same way the computer was a huge work in progress starting in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the pencil also went through very many changes in terms of encasing the “lead” into a wooden mold and finding the correct ratio of graphite to other materials so that the mark of the pencil would be useful. This comparison really helps to prove the point Baron make that the computer is just “simply the latest step in a long line of writing technologies.”

In terms of literacy and how the pencil and the computer are similar in how we learn to read or write, Baron draws another parallel, in that neither the computer or the pencil were originally intended to be used for writing. “Writing was not initially speech transcription, and pencils were first made for woodworkers, not writers. Similarly, the mainframe computer when it was introduced was intended to perform numerical calculations too tedious or complex to do by hand.” We see that this similarity between the two has effectively changed the way we learn, teach, and develop literacy.

One of Baron’s last points is that we have not had enough time to see how the computer will affect literacy whether that is good or bad. We have had hundreds of years to see how the pencil has effectively changed (or started) the way humans write and record information and learn information, but yet we haven’t had enough time to see if the computer will have any long-term changes to our literacy. Some short-term changes that we have already begun to see is the meaning of many words have already changed, and some new words have been created entirely. His final conclusion states

“Computer communications are not going to go away. How the computer will eventually alter literacy practices remains to be seen. The effects of writing took thousands of years to spread; the printing press took several hundred years to change how we do things with words. Although the rate of change of computer development is significantly greater, it is still too early to do significant speculating.”

I refuse to say that the computer will end up the way the pencil has, but I also have some doubt saying that the computer is the end all be all for us as a literacy technology, we don’t know what is yet to come, and I think there is some beauty in that. Literacy is something that also changes over time, but is it as a result of technology or is it the other way around. The human brain will conform to whatever medium it is exposed to when young, and if we eventually have machines to do many of the tedious things we still have to do, I don’t see a problem with that. We can be literate with what is given to use. We are still learning.

One Comment

  • Dustin Dustin says:

    I think it is important to point that Baron’s essay was originally published in 2000. I don’t think that the essay’s argument that is too early tell what the actual ramifications of computers will have on literacy has been damaged just yet, but things have changed in 15 years. In 2000 the cellular telephone and the computer were two separate technologies. SMS did exist, but even with the introduction of T9 Word sending a text on a number pad was tedious. With the introduction of the Blackberry and then the touch screen smart phone typing became much easier. I still agree with the argument that it is too early to tell what the impacts will be. The simplified spelling used in text messages is nothing new. Telegrams used a similar system. Students learning to read and write today may be a little spoiled by the technologies there to correct their spelling and grammar, but they also have more information in the palm of their hand than my high school library. All I can do is fill out this WordPress blog and hope for the best.

Leave a Reply