Dennis Baron's A Better Pencil
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Reviewed by Kate Pantelides
University of South Florida
Baron concludes by examining the development of computers, considering how they were initially invented to replace the calculator, not word processors. Of course, as we well know, the computer quickly developed as the word processor of choice, and Baron considers the new genres that have developed as a result of this relationship – the blog, instant messaging, the email, the wiki – each with its own set of expectations and conventions. Because of the relative ease of communication afforded by the digital revolution, Baron posits that new word technologies have allowed people to develop as authors, to balance out the relationship between “creators” and “consumers” of texts (p.157). However, with this ease and increased composition of texts come new characteristics of writing. Baron explains that because websites and wikis operate under a different notion of writing, namely that it is not fixed, people are forced to reconsider their belief systems: always a cause for discomfort.
Although Baron’s portrait of developing word technologies is fairly rosy, he does offer a window into the “Dark Side of Technology.” With ease and positive change, Baron warns, complexity and difficulty are also ushered in; he tempers his generally upbeat narrative with the reminder that “Technologies let us recreate the world and also lie about it” (p.116). Since writing is so easily changed, it ceases to stand as the authority it once did. Thus, questions of authenticity creep in – what texts can you trust in the digital revolution - a charter, money, a photo, a signature? Perhaps most disturbingly, the net has allowed hate groups, like everyone else, to connect. According to Baron, the web hasn't neccesarily grown bigotry itself, it merely "mirrors" the growth of interactive mass media generally (p.208). “Space pages,” Baron’s term for pages on social-networking sites, help groups with any shared interest, no matter how hateful, unite and become “friends.”
Because of the scale of online bigotry and other potential dangers of the Web, Baron may dismiss “teknofear” and “neo-Luddites” a bit too quickly for some readers. Additionally, insisting that such anxieties are nothing new is not neccesarily realistic, since the web has introduced economies of scale unprecedented in Thoreau's time. However, Baron’s purpose is ultimately not to disparage or promote word technologies, simply to place them in a continuum. Baron looks at the ocean of writing history, chronicling the complaints and positing that they come in familiar waves – they break against the beach, cycle through and return in the same form centuries later. In Baron’s construction, each word technology moves “along a path from radical to conventional” (p.246). Thus, Baron does not think that books will die as a result of the digital revolution, and he does not think that we have seen the end of complaints leveled at contemporary word technologies. In the end, Baron’s narrative is an extremely engaging, accessible account, telling the story of how the digital revolution has welcomed a generation of authors, ever in search of a better pencil and new venues for creativity. A Better Pencil offers a convincing counterargument to those threatened by the digital revolution and a useful history for those in computers and writing on which to build.