Baron, “From Pencils to Pixels”

Dennis. "From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies."
Cushman, Kintgen, Kroll, and Rose 70-84.

Baron’s article, first printed in Selfe and Hawisher’s Passions,
, includes several figures representative of the points he makes
related to a genealogy of writing instruments, from Sumerian reeds to pencils to
computers.  "From Pencils to Pixels" is, in one sense, a historical piece
concerned with identifying the impact of new and emerging technologies on
writing activity.  That is, the pencil, even though it wasn’t initially
designed for writing (instead, it was designed to mark lines for measurement)
became the most ubiquitous writing instrument ever.  Baron takes a moderate
stance after he announces at the outset that we must be cautious about
hyperbolic predictions for the future of computers (an indicator of 1999,

Summary statement: "My contention in this essay is a modest one: the computer
is simply the latest step in a long line of writing technologies. In many ways
its development parallels that of the pencil—hence my title–though the
computer seems more complex and is undoubtedly more expensive" (72).

Like Ong, Baron makes the case for writing as a technology, too, but rather
than considering the ways that writing (or the possibility of writing)
restructures thought, he is foremost concerned with comparing the rise of the
computer with the development of the pencil. 

"New communication technologies, if they catch on, go through a number of
strikingly similar stages. After their invention, their speed depends on
, function, and authentication" (71).  Baron
dwells on these three features, framing the computers mostly in functional terms
or, that is, as an instrument or apparatus rather than as material and
epistemological force implicated in a complex network or ecology.  This is,
of course, necessary given his comparison with the pencil, which he treats

Judging by the amount of space he devotes to it, Baron is concerned most of
all with authentication, ranging from issues of validity (forgery, for instance)
to related strands of privacy (78), corruption (81), security (81), fraud (80),
and integrity (81).  This also connects with concerns about error (82) and
tranclusivity (81) or the problem of multiple versions of a document, problems
tracking changes, methods for verifying dates of production, and so on.

"But technology has a trailing edge as well as a down side, and studying how
computers are put to use raises serious issues in the politics of work and
mechanisms of social control" (83).

Related sources:
Bolter, Jay. Source unnamed. (74b)
Marvin, Carolyn. 1988. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about
Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century
. New York: Oxford
Petroski, Henry. 1990. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.
New York: Knopf.