Was reminded again today how interesting it can be to be part of a blogging community. I received this pingback from the ‘Discourse about Discourse‘ blog regarding my last post about writing in our current post-paper age. In that post i laid the groundwork for an argument about what it must mean to do academic writing now that the limitation of paper has been removed from our work. I’ve been debating about the follow up I planned to write on that issue but have been drawn slightly sideways by the post listed above.
The dominant TEXT of our time will be digital. The ways in which we replicate the biases of a paper based world are no different than the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at Second Life architects who insist on putting roofs and stairs in their buildings in a 3D space that not only does not need them but is very inconvenienced by it. There is a hearkening in it for a time past, of a time that is passing. As the technology changes so does what we need from the world knowledge change.
Available technology is intrinsically tied to our understanding of what knowledge is at a given time in a given society. Or, to be more specific in this case, the state of technology is tied to what it means to be knowledgeable. For the purposes of this conversation think less about technology in the sense that it is used to mean electronics but the more general sense in which we talk about tools created by members of our society to accomplish a given task. A pencil is a fine example of technology in our given conversation.
In an era, for instance, before the technology of writing is widespread, where writing implements, surfaces are scarce, the memory becomes of paramount importance. Rhetoric, the ability to call upon inner reserves of knowledge and skill at a given time are also of supreme importance. As we see the transition to the written era, those skills start to be of less importance and writing and the deliberate thought necessitated by the written word begins to predominate.
If you are writing on vellum or parchment… you are going to spend a great deal of time considering what is going to be on that paper. It is a permanent record of the work that you do. There is a classic (and possibly apocryphal) story that one of my professors used to quote of a Phd thesis being submitted to Oxford and almost failing because the page number 472 was missing. A problem only solved by binding the work into two separate books. Under these circumstances knowledge production must by necessity be the result of LONG deliberation. How else to explain the explosion of energetic thought (mostly in pamphlets) that followed the adoption of the printing press.
We have another of these transitions on our hands. There is great security to be found in the permanence of printed text, and a security that we will not altogether lose… but one that we must put aside in our discussions about writing in this digital age. What does it mean, in our current era, to speak ‘the truth’ about the Middle East. Who is to say that the American Government, Wikipedia, the Times or Al Jazeera have a more balanced position. That the historian, the political activist, the ‘common person’, the journalist or the politician are ‘less biased’.
We need, as Ben has done in his post, to ask ourselves what writing the digital is going to mean to us. And that is the terrible trick to all of this. There is not going to be one answer to this question. What it is going to mean to me is not necessarily what it is going to mean to you. We are moving away from an era with a single dominant paradigm where people from one part of the world can ignore the truths of another part, or one class ignore the beliefs of another. We are, for better and for worse, all in this together. And the worst thing we can do is force everyone to agree. This is where, I think Stephen Downes‘ theories of networks over groups really comes into force. We must work, at least in part, as part of larger networks. We need not all be working toward a single goal.
Just as the Second Life architects (me included in my small way) are tearing down their buildings and putting up new ones without roofs… without stairs, we too must do the same with our writing. They have, for the most part, retained some kind of floor and have retained the purpose of having a building – a place to meet, a place to show a place to feel safe – we too will retain our own purpose — communication.