Some of the insights raised in Dennis Baron’s “From Pencil to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology” explain well a recent phenomenon that I only noticed earlier this year: students are beginning to take pictures of slides and videos of videos in class. This seems a peculiar, yet logical, extension of the turn toward “writing with pictures,” even if the wording gets reversed to “pictures with writing.” Baron suggests that although there may be a new semiotic layer (or layers) added in the process of abstracting the origin and originary process of writing (writer → computer processor → digital slide projection → digital photograph → reader), the fact of their nature as denaturalized and thus technologically/culturally determined sets these tools of language on semi-even footing. It’s a good example of how language itself plays “control” to the experiments of media; technology may evolve rapidly but language and, more specifically, literacy, tend to lag behind. This may mean that those students who prefer to take pictures of slides instead of write down their information either by hand or in a computer processor will suffer the cognitive slippage between record(ing) and comprehension, the technology outstripping their ability to register completely its uses and effects. But that slippage, Baron goes on, might only equate to that that occurs/ed between handwriting and computer processing, a gap that one might argue has been more than made up for over the course of only a few decades, if that.
This phenomenon becomes an even better example when paired with Baron’s later discussion of “digitization,” which also might be understood as “computerization” or even “imagization.” The process of digitization, as he describes it, is often the process of denaturalizing the text object, removing it from its basis in imprinted fact. With digitization comes the loss of complete trust in the text or image; any thought of “originality” is instantly corrupted given the possibility of invisible alterations or edits. In other words, it can be difficult to take the digital text/image as is without wondering over its history of production. Fraud looms over every representation. Here, I believe, is where Baron hits on a potentially liberating theorization of digitization and digital media (it being only the latest technological transformation language has undergone): a mode of writing whose form self-scrutinizes in its very being, challenging its rhetorical conception and the method by which we make meaning. Such epistemological confrontations are hardwired into language itself, but it’s only through the newest literacy technologies that these roots are revealed – once a writing technology is “naturalized” (perhaps the way Thoreau “naturalized” the pencil), its seams disappear. Deep historical materialism like Baron’s illuminates this cyclical tendency to naturalize writing technologies; the question it leaves open-ended is how to best combat this trend, or rather harness it in the aims to develop a more savvy literacy.