Is the Internet melting our brains?

No! The author of "A Better Pencil" explains why such hysterical hand-wringing is as old as communication itself

Published September 19, 2009 11:11AM (EDT)

By now the arguments are familiar: Facebook is ruining our social relationships; Google is making us dumber; texting is destroying the English language as we know it. We're facing a crisis, one that could very well corrode the way humans have communicated since we first evolved from apes. What we need, so say these proud Luddites, is to turn our backs on technology and embrace not the keyboard, but the pencil.

Such sentiments, in the opinion of Dennis Baron, are nostalgic, uninformed hogwash. A professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Baron seeks to provide the historical context that is often missing from debates about the way technology is transforming our lives in his new book, "A Better Pencil." His thesis is clear: Every communication advancement throughout human history, from the pencil to the typewriter to writing itself, has been met with fear, skepticism and a longing for the medium that's been displaced. Far from heralding in a "2001: Space Odyssey" dystopia, Baron believes that social networking sites, blogs and the Internet are actually making us better writers and improving our ability to reach out to our fellow man. "A Better Pencil" is both a defense of the digital revolution and a keen examination of how technology both improves and complicates our lives.

Recently, Salon spoke with Baron by phone about emoticons, the way Facebook and MySpace make us better friends and a not-too-distant future when everyone is a writer.

Your book is about the digital communications revolution, so why did you decide to call it "A Better Pencil"?

OK, I can't answer that very well because the publisher came up with the title. I had a different title, and they decided it wouldn't sell. "A Better Pencil" is a line I use in the book, but I had called it "From Pencils to Pixels." I think they wanted something shorter and, pardon the expression, pointed.

But what I'm dealing with is the way technology affects readers and writers when they communicate. And also how readers and writers help direct the way technology develops. So, what I'm trying to do is put the computer revolution into historical context to see how it fits with previous innovations in communication like pencils, like the printing press, like the clay tablet, like writing itself. A new communication technology does what old technology was able to do – sometimes better, sometimes in a little different way -- and I'm looking at how we make sense of all of this.

How is the criticism directed at computers, instant messaging and Facebook similar to the negative reaction directed at previous communication advances, from pencils to typewriters?

Historically, when the new communication device comes out, the reaction tends to be divided. Some people think it's the best thing since sliced bread; other people fear it as the end of civilization as we know it. And most people take a wait and see attitude. And if it does something that they're interested in, they pick up on it, if it doesn't, they don't buy into it.

I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won't have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there's no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant -- it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of "this is going to revolutionize everything" versus "this is going to destroy everything."

You point out that means of communication we fear often evolve to become viewed as highly personal: Handwriting started out as a completely bureaucratic mechanism and it's now thought of as a very personal means of expression. Why does this happen?

Handwriting could only become personal once handwriting no longer needed to be uniform because we didn't have to worry about readability. Handwriting had to be readable when it was the only way of reproducing texts. Once the printing press took over, you still had several hundred years where documents, business documents, certain notes, letters, were produced by hand, not on print, because the printing press was only useful if you needed large numbers of copies of things. So you still had to have uniform, legible handwriting for office work until the early 20th century when office machinery took over. That's when you start seeing the shift from everybody has to write the same way to expressing your personality.

But we also tend to romanticize the technology of yesteryear. There are always people who feel nostalgia toward the means of communication that have been usurped. What do you think causes this even when, in the case of computers compared to typewriters, say, the new technology has many advantages?

I'm going to have to guess at this because I'm not particularly nostalgic. But when you read this type of commentary, you have a sense that people are afraid of the new technology and think that somehow, things were great, why fix what's not broken? Or I'm too old to learn this new technology. One of the things about new technology is that it tends to be more complicated than the older ones. So at least initially there's a steep learning curve. When I started using a personal computer, they were not particularly plug-and-play. They were really user-unfriendly. You had to be a maniac to stay with it and a glutton for punishment. But I had the sense that eventually, this will be better despite all the difficulties I had to put up with. But the people who yearn for the good old days of older technology like typewriters don't seem to realize there never were any good old days. At the same time, in looking at new technology, it never does everything that people promise it will.

One of the most common arguments against the digital revolution is that communicating via IM or Facebook or e-mail in some sense removes us from living in the world. Isn't there some validity to that? When one of the main ways in which we socialize is done alone, in the privacy of our own home without speaking, doesn't that indicate a dramatic communication change – and perhaps not for the better?

There are two sides to this. Computer socialization -- is this putting an end to face-to-face human interaction? Or does it let us expand our social networks when face-to-face communication is not possible, either because of geographic distance or some other barrier? Obviously, there are people who will reject these kinds of things out of hand and say the only meaningful communication is the one that I can have face-to-face with someone, who say calling Facebook "friends" friends is the end of the meaning of friendship.

On the other hand, I survey my students all the time about this, and there's confirming data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that, in fact, what people are using programs like Facebook and e-mail and chats for is to reinforce friendships and to maintain friendships across distance. My students say I did this semester abroad and the only way I could keep in contact with my friends was through Facebook, and stuff like that. I don't think for most people it replaces anything. I think it extends it. But certainly, there are people who want to say, look I have 15,000 Facebook friends and look how popular I am.

As a professor of linguistics, have you noticed the way your students write and speak changing over time? We hear so much criticism about emoticons and text-speak corrupting language, but do you find that actually occurring?

I don’t think it’s having a negative impact. The sort of scary stories you hear all the time about children at school putting emoticons in their book reports -- that may happen from time to time, but I think students as writers quickly learn what’s appropriate in what kind of context. And so they adapt their writing. Particularly the successful ones. Some people are better at it than others, obviously. Some people are never going to write a good report whether there’s an emoticon in it or not, and some people are going to write dynamite stuff for school even if they use acronyms and little pictures. But writers learn what the audience expects, and they learn that for any successful communication there’s got to be an interchange between what the audience expects and giving them what you want to give them. Getting your message across in a way that they’ll pay attention to. I don’t see that as a big problem at all. My students are not making those kinds of errors, but they’re also in college, and we talk about this sort of thing in class and they say, I don’t even do that in text messages. They say that’s very junior high school, that’s very middle school. Once you mature, once you’re in high school, you look down on that stuff. We punctuate, and we check for spelling. They’re well aware of the conventions, and they buy into them. In fact, it’s kind of hard to break them away from being conventional.

If you don’t think the digital revolution is making us worse writers, do you think it’s making too many people writers? Just to play devil’s advocate, is it a positive that so many people can express themselves publicly online?

We have, through the history of communications, this whole tension between giving people the tools to express themselves and regulating that expression: Who should be allowed to publish? Whose manuscript should be allowed to appear as a play in the 17th century? In London, you had to have government approval before you could put on a play. Shakespeare had to get that approval from the authorities. So what the computer does is subvert those traditional gate-keeping facilities. You don’t need an editor, you don’t need a publisher. All you need is a Wi-Fi and an Apple laptop and a place to sit at Starbucks and you’re a writer. And the funny thing is that you could put anything out there, and somebody is going to read it. Writers spend their whole lives looking for readers and now with the computer, readers are there. They’re just waiting for people to put stuff online. Does this dilute the quality? That’s a matter of opinion. Giving more people the authority to write – people are doing it and they seem to find things to say and they’re finding readers and that’s one criterion for successful writing: having an audience.

A follow-up to that: You talk about John Updike’s fear about living in a world where no writer is ever paid for his work. When there is this much material online for free, while it’s easier for people to express themselves, is it harder for writers to live off their writing now? If writing becomes a hobby rather than a profession, what does that bode for journalism or even fiction writers?

The economical model is changing for journalists, no question. But I think that’s got less to do with the fact that people other than professional journalists can put stuff online. People are getting their news from other sources, from online news aggregators or directly from news sources or from “The Daily Show” rather than buying print. I think historically, professional writing is a relatively modern concept, and writers had to have independent incomes for most of history in order to be writers. They’ve had to have patrons. They’ve had to have day jobs. So what else is new? Most fiction writers don’t make a living from their fiction. A few do, but most of them have to get teaching jobs or some other kind of job to pay the bills. The economical model for publication is changing, but how it is changing and whether it is good or bad or simply inevitable, I can’t say.

Another argument frequently cited against the computerization of writing is that there is now too much information, and it’s harder to find what you’re looking for. However, as you point out, people have been saying this about every communication transformation that has come before the digital revolution.

There’s always been too much to read. Nobody read all the books at the Great Library of Alexandria. Nobody was capable of doing that then. Nobody is reading all that’s online today. What we need and what we always seem to get is a way to make this glut of information navigable. We need search engines, we need indexing, we need reviews. We have all this apparatus to find the data we’re looking for.

How do you see this revolution continuing to change the way we write and read, and do you think the attempts to constrain communication, as we saw during the Iranian elections, can ever be lastingly effective?

Opening up writing to new voices can’t be a bad thing. We’re seeing this spiral. The more people use technology, the more people communicate, the more people in power become concerned with how to control that use. There are two forces pushing against each other. Whether it’s government or religious organizations or schools controlling what children do online or parents controlling what their kids are doing with communication technologies or groups online self-organizing and deciding how to control what does and does not get expressed -- it’s similar to what happened when printing presses became a major means of communication or when radio and TV became major communication players. How do you license, how do you control what gets said on the air? There’s a lot of bad stuff online and there’s a lot of good stuff online, and it’s going to take a long time to figure out what standards and regulations are going to be acceptable that aren’t going to stifle creativity but that are going to give people some security as well. 

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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