The landscape in which we interact and communicate is continually changing. Today, there are any number of technological “marvels” that pervade nearly every aspect of our lives. Some of these so-called marvels have been around for decades. Others are fairly new, yet are revolutionary enough to change the ways by which we teach successive generations. Literacy technology is transforming readers and writers; and not just children, but also adults who perform quotidian tasks in the workplace. A label we can use to identify this shift is post-typographic. David Reinking coined this term in 1996 to describe the beginnings of an unprecedented sea change in the way texts are created and perceived. He predicted that written forms of communication would no longer be characterized by typesetting (the technology of molded metal forms and ink) and print (the end result of this mechanical process). Instead, written forms of communication would eventually become completely electronic. Certainly, such a transformation conceals a danger, but it is not quite evident or obvious what this danger might be. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger said: “What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence” (Heidegger 28). So, while electronic texts become the standard form of literate production, there are questions that loom on the horizon of our technological future. Will the entrenched use of electronic texts draw us inexorably away from our own essential qualities; as humans that have arisen from animate nature?
When I was first learning to read and write, the lessons of literacy were clearly presented to me, and made manifest in my experience. My parents read to me from physical books, and I could reach out and touch the mystical black glyphs that were strangely causing them to speak to me. Before long, I learned that these “glyphs” were actually printed words on paper. A process of identification took place, and I was suddenly made aware of the existence of printed books. What was read to me was an inconsequential part of this discovery, for the utility and purpose of this entity, at once named, was resonant with the values that my parents were inculcating in me. From this mutual exercise came the recognition of more and more words, as well as my gradual ability to speak them. The memories of sitting in the family armchair with my mom or dad and having a book read to me had a profound impact. Now, years later, I understand the importance of having loving parents who are enthusiastic about reading to their children. If they are enthusiastic about reading to us while we are children, then there is a greater chance that we will become enthusiastic readers ourselves. For example, if parents emphasize or stress certain spoken lines, or bellow more masculine characters while chirping more sensitive ones, we start to do the same. Indeed, the act of mimicry when learning a language is very important. It is natural, and it is what we do to spontaneously acquire language. The same principle is practiced when learning to read.
Later, when I was taught how to write in school, the task of committing lettered shapes to memory, and physically copying those shapes down on paper with the lead of a pencil seemed arduous. I disliked holding a pencil the right way, and chose instead to use this “technology” unconventionally, distancing myself from my peers on the question of technology at an early age. Unbeknownst to me, this was a technology, or as Dennis Baron says, “a way of engineering materials in order to accomplish an end” (From Pencils to Pixels). For whatever pencil I used when I was young had been manufactured; a consumer product processed with plant machinery. But in the early nineties, the pencil was, in fact, an old technology that was still being used to teach the basics of literacy. In retrospect, I am grateful to have been taught this way, because the physical act of writing rooted me in the natural process of learning. Likewise, the way I was taught the counterpart to writing was similarly natural. With the aid of a forefinger (or a ruler, pencil, etc.), I blocked out words from my view while being attentive to words that I was trying to study and comprehend. In this way, books became for me like “. . . cultural icons that [anchored] the experience of being literate” (Reinking xxii).
Of course, there are now new ways of learning how to read and write. The definition of literacy has changed conditionally in recent years, and technology has given us brand new languages and modes of communication. For instance, typing is fundamentally different from using a pencil and writing words on paper. With a computer, you have to know where the keys lie on the keyboard (or touchscreen); and not just the letters, but the keys that help format a given page or multimedia presentation. As one scholar put it, literacy now means “the competence to exploit a particular set of cultural resources. . . to use the resources of writing for a culturally defined set of tasks and procedures” (Reinking xiv). Therefore, implementing literacy technologies has become a clarion call for many pedagogues and politicians, who maintain that technology will eliminate illiteracy, as schools look for funding to outfit classrooms.
The Greek words technē and epistēmē were used synonymously to refer to knowing something in the fullest sense. From these, we get our words “technology” and “epistemology.” It would seem, then, that the connection in the minds of societal reformers between technology and literacy is warranted. But, as Bertram C. Bruce notes, “[u]nderlying both the excitement and the unease about technology are deeper issues about literacy and its relation to the physical world, the nature of knowledge, social change, linguistics, aesthetics, and morality” (Critical Issues). These various issues have motivated several stances that one can adopt toward technology. Personally, I occupy a middle ground when it comes to the question concerning literacy technologies. I am somewhere between the Oppositional and Utilitarian viewpoints. In other words, I oppose much of technology for philosophical reasons, but I advocate for Utilitarianism when it is suitable for engaging students in the learning process. My exception is that, where technology can be shown to engage students better than static lesson plans, in the short-term, it should be used as a utility. Most people I talk to on this subject do not see any negative drawbacks to cognitive ability through the use of technology. However, it is my belief that technology rewires the brain, and causes the power of memory to diminish. Indeed, the fast march of technology through the ages has led to increasing levels of abstraction. This is no more evident than in our own day. As Joshua Foer said at a TED conference: “Over the last few millenia, we’ve invented a series of technologies from the alphabet to the scroll, the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone… that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories” (Foer).
The Greeks had another word that was more-or-less synonymous with the aforenamed. This was alētheia, which can be translated as “disclosure” or “truth.” One thing that technology seems to have taken away from our collective memory is the reverence that we once held for our animate surroundings. I believe that taking our primary truths from technologies holds the living world at a distance, which creates a profound loss of meaning. One can argue that we are just creating new meanings, but all I see from this fast march of technology is an estrangement from ourselves, each other, and nature. With technology, human values have been redirected to prize the artificial, and to invest in its ubiquity. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau once wrote about the modern technological improvements of his day, saying: “They are but improved means to an unimproved end” (From Pencils to Pixels). So it is, I believe, with our own contemporary “improvements.” For instance, by 2025, e-books are supposed to comprise 75 percent of total books sold (Houle). Ontologically speaking, what repercussions are there in such a sweeping transformation?
In investigating the post-typographic world, Reinking cited a study where others have used the term post-typographic to “describe the influence of electronic media in operationalizing postmodern views of meaning or to suggest that writing in electronic media is more rhetorical compared to printed media, where writing is more philosophical” (Reinking xx). I think there is something important to this distinction, because electronic media has become a significant global communication platform, and that includes the beliefs and opinions of countless others. Worse, these technologies are affecting a process of homogenization, in which multicultural values are beginning to disintegrate. Print culture, on the other hand, employs a ready philosophical resistance to this process. The tangible book and the written word will always see its author or reader as an autonomous unit. This distinction, and the invariable disconnection of the reader of the printed word from the rhetorical sphere is not a bad thing. In fact, I find it desirable. The printed book is immediately divorced from the swaying opinions of others. Moreover, the philosophical nature of the book is closer to our materiality and embedded nature within the environment. No doubt, the tangible aspects of a physical book blend in well with the other sensuous surroundings in our landscape. There is something very refreshing about taking a physical book – a medium that is both singular and linear – and finding a quiet place to retreat to and read, whether that is on the couch with a blanket, or by a stream under an array of sunshine. These feelings that are embedded in our biological nature do not exist with mediums that display electronic text, because one needs a source of electrical power for that cold, impersonal device that is multi-linear in the sense that you have WIFI Internet access, an operating system, and hundreds of other books on the device (a temptation for the mind to get distracted). In other words, no longer is there just one thing to focus on and enjoy when sitting down to read. Where we once had purpose with the fully disclosed nature of the book (its alētheia), we now have the sporadic nullity of devices that are leading us in contradictory directions.
Careless and uninformed, our relationship to technology is characterized by concealment. Most technology consumers generally do not know how technology works, much less understand the essence of what technology is. At least one thing is certain, though, and that is that technology is a means to an end, and the purpose of technology is to achieve a result. Therefore, people learn enough to use a given piece of technology to achieve their daily, quotidian tasks. But understanding how the essence of technology is changing the essence of what it means to be human is more nebulous. Heidegger maintained that the essence of technology was “coming to presence,” or reveal its ability to “hold sway” over mankind:
“It is precisely in Enframing, which threatens to sweep man away into ordering as the supposed single way of revealing, and so thrusts man into the danger of the surrender of his own free essence – it is precisely in this extreme danger that the innermost indestructible belongingness of man within granting may come to light, provided that we, for our part, begin to pay heed to the coming to presence of technology” (Heidegger 32).
We lose ourselves to technology, and it was Heidegger and Thoreau who thought that, through the course of technology, we would eventually arrive at an understanding of our own essence. For Thoreau, the technology of pencil manufacturing financed his sojourn to Walden Pond, where he wished to live deliberately and discover the essential facts of life. Likewise, Heidegger believed that technology would eventually reveal a vital insight into man’s belongingness to man. Many individuals ignorantly await for that “coming-to-pass,” as Heidegger would say. Others actively seek it out, like Thoreau. Through my own experience in being instructed in literacy, I feel like I have been led along the way to actively seeking it out, rather than waiting for alētheia to come-to-pass.
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology.” Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st. Century Technologies . Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Bruce, B.C. (1997). “Literacy technologies: What stance should we take?” Journal of Literacy Research 29(2): 289-309.
Foer, Joshua. “Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do.” TED, Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Heidegger, Martin. “Die Frage nach der Technik.” Trans. William Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology. 38th ed. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1977. 3-35. Print.
Houle, David. “A Futurist’s Forecast for E-Books – David Houle – MediaBizBloggers.” MyersBizNet: Myers Business Network. N.p., 5 Aug. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <http://www.mediabizbloggers.com/evolution-shift/100027269.html>.
Reinking, David, Michael C. McKenna, Linda D. Labbo, and Ronald D. Kieffer, eds. Handbook of Literacy and Technology: Transformations in A Post-typographic World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1998. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.