Topic: Baron provides examples of “a better pencil.” What does he mean by the concept, and how might that impact style? Consider what your approach to your final course paper might be and how Baron’s ideas relate to it.
Baron’s titular phrase combines two notions:
1) First, I feel there’s an allusion here to the old saying: ‘build a better mousetrap.’ (Baron’s reference is even more densely meaningful when we remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with coining the phrase.) Whether a constructing a literal mousetrap or no, this is describing a very human desire–that we’ve always got an object or process that we’re always trying to improve; still, we seem to think that the ‘traditional’ tool is usually the best tool. Despite years of children playing Mouse Trap, the spring-loaded bar trap remains popular and cheap. Baron speaks at length about those writers who think the lowly pencil is the very apex of writing technology. Despite the electronic predictions of our most pixel-eyed technological Utopians, we still buy billions of #2 pencils every year. The next best thing? Or the old best thing?
2) Second, Baron’s packed up a metaphor for the ‘perfected’ writing tool, especially in his Thoreau chapter. Baron provides numerous explicit comparisons between the pencil’s history and the computer’s: each tool is more transparent, more portable, faster, and improves the act/product of writing for real writers using writing. And importantly, for Thoreau, the pencil’s not important because it’s a transcendent writing tool. The pencil (and by connection the computer) is important because it seems so natural. (This sounds like Clay Shirky: it’s not until social media/networking tools become mundane that they really become interesting.)
Baron notes that “We have a way of getting so used to the technologies of writing that we come to think of them as natural rather than technological.” (Baron 46) We ALWAYS want the better writing tool, the item that will get out of the way and let me put me on the page. How different is that from how I feel about the big white textbox that I’m rapidly filling right now, really? (Baron talks about handwriting in this light. Handwriting nostalgists write about the purity and personality of the act of John Hancocking; ironically, the “big round hand” and other forms of handwriting was typewriting without the typewriter down at the ol’ office for centuries.)
I think that the (to us) curious matter-of-factness that Thoreau seems to have had about his pencils—or perhaps more accurately, our surprise at his matter-of-factness—is an example of a common problem in writing technology studies, something Christina Haas points out in Writing Technology: Studies on the Materiality of Literacy (1996). Too often, we see technologies like the computer (or the pencil) as “amorphous, omniscient agents of change” instead of what they really are—“varied, elaborate, complicated, and far from immediate” in effect (Haas 18). That is, in studying the effects of technology on style (or writing, composition, literacy, rhetoric, agency, whatever), the changes wrought are certainly real but often “small, subtle, even paradoxical.” And sometimes just as much the result of serendipity as circumstance! The technological determinists and computer utopians would have us usher in sweeping changes that flush out the old ways of writing for the new. (Or at least talk about the changes that have occurred already in such glorious terms.) What Hass notes (and Baron) is that technological change is real, but also historical, contextual, and complex. Paradigms don’t shift overnight, and they don’t shift in a single way. And when they do, it’s usually worth remembering that when we’ve finally noticed them doing so, the change has already happened and it’s too late to hold back. (Kind of like Thoreau–he loved the pencil but didn’t really fight the telegraph—even when he complained about it, he recognized that it was already a fact.)
I’m thinking in terms of style and technology, of course—I’m not sure what direction I’ll take the generative sentence style thing at this point, but one thing that occurs to me is this: sometimes we make a great deal about things like the influence of boxes and 140 characters on writing style in the context of services like Twitter and Facebook (and now Buzz, I suppose). The technological element is the part we obsess over–on text messaging and constraints. But what about the influence of that little template that is (or in some cases, used to be) there right in front of that box? That picture of me to the bottom left of any status update, link, or note on Facebook that tells me I’m already halfway to writing something—after all, I’m logged in, aren’t I? The famous Twitter “What are you doing?” that does (and then doesn’t) have influence on how we tweet. Is it explicit? Or tacit? Why do I still want to put “is” in front of all my Facebook status updates, and they’ve cut that template more than a year ago? What’s the bigger context, here? What’s invisible or seemingly natural–like Thoreau’s pencil, the tool that was so ubiquitous to his perception of the world that it disappeared from it entirely? (as Baron notes, Thoreau never talks about his pencil in Walden). With this better pencil, what changes are simply the next iteration of the same old thing (the laptop wasn’t the first device to make composing portable, after all) and what’s really new here?