The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Captain’s Log Stardate 5938.3 – The Universal Library

As I read Kelly’s article “Scan This Book” I was struck by its utopian outlook. It felt almost like it had a Star Trek feel to it. With that in mind I thought that I would discuss the arguments for and against the Universal Library in the form of a “Captain’s Log” from Star Trek:

Captain’s log- Stardate 5938.3:

I have been enjoying reading the novels of 21st century Earth held within Unilib (our Universal Library). It is hard to imagine that people of that time were opposed to the digitization of all books. Concerns over copyright and advertising revenue seemed to dominate the debate over whether or not it would be a good thing to have free access to all books ever written. Now it seems unthinkable to live without Unilib. Just imagine what would have happened to great countries like Somalia and Afghanistan had they not been given the free access to these documents in their language. No doubt their populations would have remained impoverished and unenlightened, forever looking for help from the countries who were wealthy enough to learn from the books they purchased and which their poorer cousins were unable to afford.

What if Unilib failed to emerge? Our world would be vastly different. We would not have developed the deep collaborative spirit that emerged among all readers as they linked, tagged and bookmarked. The vast mashups of reading material would have never materialized. A greater sense of understanding and authority arose as more and more knowledge was linked and connected to each other. Cures for cancer, diabetes and heart disease would not have been imagined because there would not have been the interconnectiveness of the vast scientific wealth.

Thank goodness the differences between the copyright holders and those interested in digitizing the world’s books were able to be settled. Authors whose works lived in obscurity began to become more popular as social book networks virally distributed links to their works. Universities were able to expand their libraries overnight because the cost of a digital book was miniscule compared to the cost of hardcover text.

Not only did universities increase their collection of human knowledge, the entire world did as well. Man’s history was more accurately depicted once governments and publishers no longer asserted and inserted their view of historical events. A more complete picture arose as readers from all walks of life, ethnicity and nationality added links and tags to historical documents. This collective and connected account of man’s story helped foster a better understanding between nations which ultimately led to the formation of our world government and a redistribution of the earth’s resources.

Our universe would be dramatically different had the United States Congress not passed their controversial copyright law of 2100. This law extended copyright indefinitely. The outcry and revolt that followed led to the great consumer boycott of 2112. This boycott, which was organized by Jim Gates (Bill Gates’ great, great grandson), called all consumers to refuse to purchase any product that was covered by copyright law. The resulting economic crash brought the mega corporations of Sonysonic and MicroApple to their senses. They soon were able to work out an agreement that allowed consumers to use intellectual property and at the same time reward those who created the content.

With opposition due to copyright removed Google, Carnegie Mellon University, Microsoft, Yahoo and other interested parties were all able to pursue their digitization projects. It soon became apparent that they should combine forces in order to create a single project that would amount to the world’s single book. With copyright no longer being a concern Google’s practice of having authors opt out of the digitization project was no longer in effect.

Google’s original strategy of having authors opt out had some legacy issues.  It is interesting to note how this practice transferred to other segments of the society. Employers used this model to gather sensitive information on their employees if the employees did not opt out of the human medical data base initiative.  Governments collected confidential information on the citizens who did not opt out of the Big Brother data bank.

The Unilib movement did have its critics. There were those who claimed that “scanning books and chucking their poor innocent words into a vast, searchable database will only create massive intellectual fraud and confusion” (Keen, 2007) They argued that “taking a few words out of one text, replacing them with a few words from another, is the surest way to undermine the coherence of any textual argument” (Keen, 2007) and that “(re)mixing great books like Plato’s Republic with Hobbes Leviathan will create intellectual garbage.” (Keen, 2007) Fortunately these fears proved to be unfounded as readers fully engaged in the process of reading. The concern that readers would not chose to read entire books was unfounded. Not only did people read complete works but they then created remix anthologies that linked works of a common thread. It was from these threads that humans have been able to evolve to where we are today: a united species seeking self-improvement over financial gain. Without the Universal Library this would not have been possible. Thank goodness mankind was able to work together to create the cornerstone of our society.


Birt, Y. (n.d.). Wisdom and the Universal Library. Retrieved September 22, 2009, from Yahya Birt:

Dyson, G. (2005, November 30). The Universal Library. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Edge The Third Culture:

Google’s Book Scanning Hits Snag. (2008, May 12). Retrieved September 26, 2009, from Wired:

Grafton, A. (2007, November 5). Onward and Upward With The Arts. Retrieved September 19, 2009, from The New Yorker:

Keen, A. (2007, March 6). Why Google’s universal library is an assault on human identity. Retrieved September 22, 2009, from Blogs ZD Net:

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Etec 540 website:!-1842142989!!20001!-1!-1938337275!!20001!-1

Manjoo, F. (2009, May 6). Your Search Returned 12 Million BooksGoogle’s goal of a universal online library would be great for humanity. It can still be great for authors and publishers, too. Retrieved September 25, 2009, from Slate:

O’Donnell, J. J. (n.d.). The Virtual Library:An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved September 25, 2009, from

Prpick, S. (Composer). (2009). The Great Library 2.0. [C. R. Ideas, Performer] unknown, unknown, unknown.

Sherman, C. (2006, May 18). Building the Universal Library. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from Search Engine Watch:

Unknown. (2009, June 22). ITC Library. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from ITC:

October 1, 2009   2 Comments

Technology workshops for teachers – article

I found this article on Edutopia about professional development conducted in a US school district.  I thought it might be of interest to those of you who are teaching and for all of us really as we may be the ones who are called upon to train our colleagues within our schools or school boards.  It’s a challenge I willingly accept.

October 1, 2009   No Comments

Postman, print and literary determinism.

technological determinism and writingThere is a global conflict taking place.  That battle occurs not in cities and towns but in the hearts and minds of members of the global community.  If this sounds alarmist and hyperbolic it is and encapsulates the sentiments of Neil Postman in his introductory chapter titled, “The Judgement of Thamus” (Postman, 1992).   Postman (1992) is of the mind that technology in the form of television and computers are influencing society in general and students specifically in profoundly negative ways.  He cautions us that before a technology is readily accepted into a culture the negative aspects of that technology must be considered.  He present a very narrow definition of technology.  Postman fails to recognize that, “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness.”  (Ong, 1982, p.81).  Postman’s technological deterministic stance is moderated by the work of Ong (1982) and Chandler (1994).  To say that consciousness is being fundamentally altered is a stretch but are we being influenced by the shift from a print based culture to a hypertext media?  Most likely.  What these changes to our consciousness are and to what degree will have academics debating for years.

Although Postman (1993) concedes that there are positive and negative aspects of any technology he does not present this balanced view in his Chapter, “The Judgement of Thalamus”.   Postman recounts a story described by Socrates to his friend Phaedrus detailing the invention of writing by Theuth.   A weakened memory, an over reliance on text to remember and an informed citizenry that appears to be wise but in truth lacks the capacity are but some of the criticisms of writing outlined by King Thamus to Theuth (Postman, 1993, p. 4).  How did orally based cultures remember when in the words of Ong (1982) the spoken word was “ephemeral”?   The answer is quite simple, “By thinking memorable thoughts” (Ong 1982, p. 34).   Pre-literate cultures depended upon mnemonic patterns, that were heavily rhythmic with predictable balanced patterns, repetitious with alliterations or assonance and many other mental cues.  Memories were embedded within standard thematic stories and proverbs with serious thought being mixed in with these memory systems.  Despite these mnemonic aids non-literate cultures were prone to sloughing off old information in favour of “lived experience” (Ong, 1982, p.47).  But to see writing for all of it’s negative qualities without acknowledging that it is in fact “essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials” (Ong, 1982, p. 81) is short sighted.  Postman fails to balance his critique of technology, specifically the computer, by not recognizing that by extension this advancement of “human potential” is further achieved by computers which are the next evolutionary stage of the written word.  Postman believes that the conflict between media and the spoken word leaves students “casualties” of a psychic battle.  “They (students) are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side” (Postman, 1993, p.17).  I would beg to differ that our students are failures in fact graduation rates have never been higher despite the doom and gloom proposed by Postman (Ministry, 2009).   Postman cautions that moving towards a more literate based culture, as exemplified by the computer in the classroom, shifts the balance from group learning, cooperation and a sense of openness to one of introspection and isolation (Postman, 1993, p.17)   With the advent of social networking sites and on-line collaboration as demonstrated in the open source movement I think that Postman has missed the mark.  Collaboration and cooperation have never been so easy as well as applicable on a massive scale.  Cyber symphonies are taking place in real time by musicians who otherwise might not have the opportunity to play with each other.  As the shift continues to a knowledge based economy in the West, those students that balance the necessity to gain computer literate skills with lived experience will have the technological and real life skills to be balanced citizens.

There is something that Ong and Postman agree on and that is that, “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness (Ong, 1982, p.77).  However Postman does not elaborate on what these differences are stating that, “This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious. (Postman, 1993, p.12)  Fortunately Ong outlines some of these “mysterious” changes.  One of the critiques of writing is that it is autonomous in that it cannot be debated with (Ong, 1982, p.78).  This critique is not new and Plato had the same misgivings over writing despite putting his concerns down on paper.  In fact when writing was supplanted by print these same critiques were present.  Postman argues against readily accepting technologies into a culture.

In any given social theory Chandler (1994) cautions technological determinists, such as Postman, that linking any technology to societal change is overly reductionist and is “widely criticized”.  Reductionism when applied to social theory simplifies things to a point whereby one can examine aspects of society in detail however it is at the expense of seeing the whole picture.  Thus, where, Postman sees a conflict between technology and society others might see it as simple one piece of the complex puzzle that is societal change.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Grade 12 Graduation Rates (2009) 2003/4 – 2008/9. Ministry of Education downloaded on October 1st, 2009 from

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

October 1, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1 – Lengthy because it’s interesting!

            A computer cannot replicate a library. The gradual digitization of our society has had profound implications on methods for collecting and preserving writing. A debate currently surrounds the usage of digital methods for storing and retrieving information. While there are positives to digitalizing human knowledge, specifically writing, it is crucial to recognize the many obstacles if there is any expectation of merging written work with the technological world. Thus, the virtual library, without addressing the shortcomings, may be too good to be true. Major legal issues also arise with the attempt at a virtual library. Copy write laws, orphaned books, and Google’s role become major points of contention which to some may seem unethical. It does not have to be black and white. A fusion of technology and written documents is being forged by groups such as the UBC InterPARES project and the Turning the Pages 2.0 toolkit. The digital age and digitization of the written word will have extensive implications for future generations. Our decisions about how to manage the digital written word will set the stage for generations to come. These challenges must be faced to ensure that our past does not become a blank spot in history.

            Kevin Kelly’s article, Scrap This Book, focuses on mainly the advantages to a virtual library. According to him, this library will essentially be “one big book of humanity” that encompasses all written documents in human history. As Kelly suggests, there are numerous advantages for all written works to be digital and freely accessed. Scrap This Book indicates that online versions of written work will be more accessible to other cultures that have had little access to information in the past. The article does not however, indicate if poverty or socioeconomic status could be a hindrance to another cultures access to this new library. Currently more than half of the world’s population does not own a computer, making it quite difficult for accessibility of the digital work. What Kelly does emphasize is that the universal library will “deepen our understanding of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked”[1].  The cross-linking of information would be advantageous as “every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages”[2]  The book would resemble the popular information site Wikipedia. The ability to find information, access relatable material, and look up confusing points could foster a better understanding of information.

Furthermore, libraries could benefit from the digitization of written material. Libraries could increase their collections by buying digital books. These online versions would be more cost effective consequently increasing what they can offer the public. Kelly paints a beautiful scene, but there are critics who have reservations about the sole reliance on digital means. These critics maintain that the virtual library maybe over simplified and as a result, unrealistic.

            James J. O’Donnell suggests in his article, An Idea Whose Time has Passed, that the digitization of books and the virtual library are “as fresh as last week’s newspaper”[3]. In fact, his article frequently refers to the virtual library as a “fantasy” or “dream”. O’Donnell opposes the view of Kelly indicating that the imperfections of the online virtual library must be acknowledged. O’Donnell questions what information should be included in a digital library, for example, if emails, notes, or shopping lists should be included. It is difficult to decipher what constitutes written work and who would indicate it as such. In this great book of humanity, a question emerges: whose responsibility would it be to moderate the content? Moreover, would classified military documents be included even though it could be a threat the security of that country? It is also apparent that the issue of young children would need to be addressed. As a free and interactive space, should children have access to all parts of the library? Our morals should dictate that the digital library blocks access to adult themes, which does not seem possible unless somehow people prove their age. Yet blocks could have the potential to alter the fundamental principle of the digital library which presumes to be “truly democratic, offering every book to every person”[4].

            Another concern is in regards to the Wiki format of the digital library. With a Wiki format, creative works can be “linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library”[5]. O’Donnell broaches a concern for this format stating that classic works should not be modified. The moral implication being we should avoid making changes or have the ability to edit the only copies of great works in literature. It would be as if an attempt was being made to alter history. It would be a disservice to history to change it to suit the current generations’ purposes.

            There are other fundamental issues in regards to the virtual library. The digital world is currently fragile and still experiences issues in which data can be lost. In Avatars of the Word, O’Donnell makes a striking point in regards to the digital world’s vulnerability:

“We will no longer be able to depend on survival of information through benign neglect. There are medieval manuscript books that may have lain unread for hundreds of years, but offered their treasures to the first reader who found and tried them. An electronic text subjected to the same degree of neglect is unlikely to survive five years.”[6]

The apprehension felt by many is that the reliance on digital will be a gamble of sorts putting us in the position to loose data due to neglect, outdated software, and computer glitches. Conversely, the written word is more permeable despite change or abandonment. In a 2006 article written for Popular Mechanics, corroborates O’Donnell’s unease on the exclusive reliance of digital work. The article, The Digital Ice Age, identifies that many of our software programs that store information are at risk:

“the threat of lost or corrupted data faces anyone who relies on digital media to store documents – and these days, that’s practically everyone. Digital information is so simple to create and store, we naturally think it will be easily and accurately preserved for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our digital information – everything from photos of loved ones to diagrams of Navy ships – is at risk of degrading, becoming unreadable or disappearing altogether”[7]

`           The article implies that backwards compatibility is a legitimate concern and evidence exists to confirm these suspicions. The Doomsday book project from 1986 provides a troublesome look into the future. William the Conqueror’s Doomsday book, written in 1086, was compiled into an interactive program where more than a million people submitted documents, photos, and thoughts. Fifteen years later the disks used to compile the work were corrupted due to compatibility issues with the newer systems.  Examples such as the multimedia Doomsday book project confirm that the digitization of all written work is fraught with challenge. The realization is that backups, constant care, and updating would be required to maintain the digital library’s functionality.

            The business of storage can promote its own problems. There are numerous ethical implications and copy write issues that plague the “dream” of a virtual library. Google is currently scanning vast numbers of books and storing them for future use the digital library. Some suggest, such as Kelly, that Google is simply facilitating the realization of the digital library while at the same time liberating “orphaned” books that are in publisher limbo. Kelly also suggested that the library would be a center for equality and deem the copy write laws obsolete. He considers publishers to be greedy by not sharing their information to the world. The problem with this logic is that Google itself is a business or a company out to make money. It is too simple to believe that Google has purely altruistic motives. Google will receive something from this enterprise, whether that is currently apparent or not.

Who owns what will be a central issue that will have to be addressed as written information becomes digitized and more readily available. Copy write in the future should be clearly presented to ensure credit is provided to those who did the work. Google is not the only company at work on digital projects.

There are several other groups at work forging a middle ground between written work and the digital world. These factions attempt to embrace the digital and technological shifts occurring in our society, while at the same time, maintaining some of the original formatting. A bridge can be made between total digitization and a sole reliance on books. The Rocket eBook is a hybrid of a paper book and digital information. In Writing Space, Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, Jay David Bolter suggests the eBook has similar characteristics of a book, such as margin writing and the ability to highlight passages, but also “turns any text into a hypertext in which the reader can search for the occurrence of words and phrases throughout the text, so that the whole text becomes immediately available”[8].

Other initiatives include the Turning the Page toolkit which keeps the appearance of a real book but allows people to have access to the work online. Turning the Page “allows libraries and museums to put entire collections of books online in a compelling 3D environment”[9]. Thus Turning the Page preserves book integrity while enabling people around the world to have access to the documents or written work.  In addition to these developments, projects are in progress which address the issue of storage and copy write infringement. The UBC based project InterPARES is attempting to “translate the theory and methods of digital preservation drawn from research to date into concrete action plans for existing bodies of records that are to be kept over the long term by archives ad archival/records units within organization-endowed with limited resources”[10] Essentially, the project creates plans that will facilitate keepers of digital information in the maintenance of records by addressing the issue of backwards compatibility and issues of patent and copy write laws. As stated in the InterPARES overview “Governance, law, art, science and scholarship urgently require concrete plans for the preservation of digital materials so that today’s actions, thoughts, achievements and creations will have a future and the future will have a memory”[11].

            Books hold a special place in our culture and society. There is something tactile about reading. Nothing can substitute the feel, texture, and smell of a book. Even history could be altered. Although the advantages of a virtual library are attractive, one must look at the whole picture including the potential problems to comprehend its full potential. Replacing books with all digital material would simply not be feasible. Yet, that does not mean that written material should not be digitized. Instead of one or the other it is possible to embrace both and utilize them to our advantage. As O’Donnell suggests: “Paradoxically this means not asking what computers can do in and four our old institutions; it means asking what needs doing and then looking with a clear unprejudiced eye for the best way of doing it. The answer will often be electronic, but the challenge will be to make sure that what the electrons do is indeed valuable to our society.”[12]

            The challenge is to see both sides of the technology. There will always be a place for the pen and paper writing, but it is possible to use the digitization of the written word to enhance not to destroy the other form. Our world is changing and technological innovations will continue to change and shape our understanding. By incorporating both in a hybrid, or symbiotic relationship, more can be achieved without the loss of culture and history.

           Works Cited

[1] Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New Yorker 14 May 2006. New York Times.  Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Donnell, James J. The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[4] Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New Yorker 14 May 2006. New York Times.  Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[5] Ibid

[6] O’Donnell, James J. Avatars of the World. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge, 1998. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

 [7] Reagan, Brad. “The Digital Ice Age.” Popular Mechanics. Dec. 2006. Web. Dec. 2006.

 [8] Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Print.

[9] “Turning the Pages 2.0 – Building the Online Library.” Web.

[10] “InterPares 3 Project – International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems.” UBC. Web.

[11] Ibid.

[12] O’Donnell, James J. The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

October 1, 2009   1 Comment

Reflection – musing, rumination


First, the disclaimer: I don’t feel reflective.  Reflexive, in one sense of the word, yes.  Musing – or bemused.  But not reflective, which suggests calm, unhurried contemplation of a reasonably quiescent subject.  Fat bloody chance.

In large part this is due to personal circumstances… the start of my grad studies adventure coinciding with a serious family illness and an (unrelated) major change to our household structure and dynamic.  In smaller part it is due the steep learning curve involved in taking a course in this (to me) new environment.  I’ve been a student for a very long time, and I figured I knew the drill.  Appears someone changed the layout of the parade ground while I was in the loo.

The effect, anyway, is rather like what I used to experience in the race car when something went seriously sideways – all of a sudden, tunnel vision: everything disappears except a few things right in front of me, obscured by a vision of my bank manager’s ugly mug.  And way too much time spent searching frantically for things that suddenly aren’t where they should be – like third gear, and my sense of confidence; and the two hours’ worth of work I’m dead certain I completed last night.

The effect, anyway, is rather like what I used to experience in the race car when something went seriously sideways – suddenly, tunnel vision: everything disappears except a few things right in front of me, obscured by a vision of my bank manager’s ugly mug.  And way too much time spent searching frantically for things that suddenly aren’t where they should be – like third gear, and my sense of confidence; and the two hours’ worth of work I’m dead certain I completed last night.

So in addition to reflecting on the content of this course I am spending a lot of time reflecting on the form.  An example: I have been a moderator for a couple of online forums in the past; a very busy one on relationships and sexuality, which could get extremely heated at times (no pun…), and another of race drivers and officials, which was less busy but not much less heated.  I was struck in both contexts by how the combination of medium and a topic brought out – and influenced – the ‘writer’ (often an otherwise very latent one) in their participants.  And similarly I’m noticing how this medium is influencing my own approach to ‘academic writing’, and the conventions and assumptions that have formed it for years.  Most noticeably, I feel freer from the constraints of traditional academic style (which I confess tends to give me a rash anyway).

But the medium also leaves me feeling much less certain that I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing… I worry persistently that I’ve missed finding something important, lodged in some ‘corner’ of the course site that I have overlooked.  And things are constantly changing – in appearance and in content.  The ‘course readings’ keep proliferating… some days this seems very exciting, and other days it just seems damned unsporting.  My response to all this varies between a sense of liberation and perhaps even defiance – “If it were really important, it would be front and centre, and anyway, we’re not bound by convention here – I can do this my way!”, and a constant sense of being out of touch and scurrying around at an ever-growing distance behind the field.  It’s… disorienting.

Which really gets to the point of this particular rumination, and how it relates to text and technology…  it boils down to this: that for most of its history, text has stayed where it was put – and now, it doesn’t any more.  In many ways, it has become as transitory and mutable as voice.  I think this is important to be aware of when we think about comparing orality and literacy in an environment of computer technologies.  The written word has lost some of its fundamental difference from speech, and gained some significant similarity – in a small way, of course, but importantly nonetheless.

(Image – copyright The Walt Disney Company 1986; found on a Hallmark postcard… posted on the bulletin board of a colleague who teaches English but only because we don’t have any real Oral Communication courses hereabouts.)

October 1, 2009   No Comments