The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 2- Mechanization: before and after

Ancient and modern writing are technologies in the sense that they are methods for arranging verbal ideas in a visual space. (Bolter, 2001, pg. 15)

 In my previous commentary, I attempted to talk about the impact of writing as a technology on humans’ development. This second commentary, I’d like to reflect on the transition of writing to writing as a mechanized process and its impact on the way we relate to text.

            Writing, as we have read and discussed in this course, has significantly changed over time due to the necessities and complementary technologies man has created or adapted.

Scroll and papyrus

The scroll and papyrus are the precursors of books as we know today. These “portable” versions of text were the first attempts to make writing and reading a more accessible technology. During this “era”, writing was considered an art form, due to its complexity in elaboration and reproduction, as well as because of the techniques and methods used. These text versions allowed the delivery of information or text in an uninterrupted sequence, which printed books still maintain.

Hand crafted books to manual scripts

Production and reproduction of texts during this and previous eras was done only by those who were fully trained and skilled in writing and reproducing typographies. Writing a book or text and reproducing it took a lot of time, effort and people, resulting in the high cost of texts and low distribution rates; making them practically inaccessible to the general public.

            Migrating from a scrolled text to the bounded pages format, allowed the reader to easily flip through the pages to advance or return to a specific point of the reading. Although initial books were large in size and required to be laid on a high surface to read (table, desk, reading podium, etc.), this new format freed the reader’s hands to be able to write and read simultaneously. This new format also facilitated the production and reproduction of texts, allowing the writer to add ideas in between pages or correct mistakes within a single page. Bounded pages resulted in the need to organize or categorize content within the text, giving way to page numbering and table of contents or index.

The printed book

As writing progressed, the letter press was introduced in the fifteenth century, which allowed word duplication en masse (Bolter, 2001, pg. 14); then came the typography which became the first product in which text could be repeated by a machine. The printing press later became an effective “upgrade” of the letter press and typography, allowing production and reproduction of several pages in a shorter period of time. These rapid and rather radical changes in writing allowed the entire process to be mechanized, automated or “machine-produced” which, as a consequence, facilitated reproduction, reduced costs and man-made mistakes greatly.

            The printed book facilitated reading due to the typography and format used. Since printed books were smaller in size, the reader could easily transport the text. This shift in format made the book accessible to different publics and also allowed a certain sense of ownership of the reader for the book- making margin notes, highlighting or underlining, etc.

The electronic book

The electronic book (E-book) format has been around for about a decade now, but has not been fully adopted as a “mainstream” book format. Commercial E-books initially began as an alternative reading format for printed books, promoting ecological and economical “savings” as their main advantage. Currently, there are many books in electronic format which can be read on a computer screen or special electronic portable devices. According to Freda Turner (2005), “E-books have an advantage over traditional books in that they offer hypertext linking, search features, and connections to other online databases enhancing data comprehension.” Turner mentions that the current lifestyle “requires” information or texts to be interactive and convenient, allowing the reader to jump between topics and ideas, as well as to easily transport a library in a small electronic device.

A shift in the way we relate to text

Before the mechanization of writing and commercial distribution of texts, the relationship between the reader and the text was impersonal and somewhat complicated. The reader could not (or with difficulty) transport the text or have access to texts as freely and easily as today. Before mechanization, reading was usually done on foot and at select spaces, such as libraries, that could afford having a copy of the text. Manually-elaborated texts imposed certain authority over the reader due to high cost, inaccessibility, etc. impeding him to adopt and adapt the text to his necessities. As writing transformed, the reader took certain “ownership” over texts by making marks, comments and easily transporting or sharing the text in different places.

            Electronic text has not only modified the way we read, but also the way we share, write and reproduce text. Electronic readers can manipulate or tailor some texts to their needs or add direct comments to for others to see as well (Bolter, 2001, pg. 11). Both “traditional” and electronic texts encourage the development of different abilities and skills for readers and writers. Some of these competencies are: creative, critical, and associative thinking; organization of ideas and thoughts, as well as the materialization of abstractness. Regarding the production of texts, the digital or electronic era has also allowed different “authors” to cooperate or write a single text without time or geographical limitations. Nowadays, the reader can easily adopt (download, browse, consult) and adapt (edit, highlight, review) texts to tailor specific needs; resulting in a closer, more personal relation with text.

            Several authors, including Turner (2005) have stated that printed texts will become obsolete in a certain point in time. It is my belief, reinforced with discussions made within the course, that electronic books will complement printed texts, not necessarily take-over them. What both digital and printed versions of text have in common is a mechanization process or technical skill of some sort that is required in order to create the final product- the difference relies on the format and form, rather than the substance. The most important aspect to consider, in terms of text and the mechanization of its elaboration process is how the reader and writer relate to it and are able to manipulate and make it their own.



Beck, N., & Fetherston, T, (2003). The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 139-161.   

Ong, W. (2008) Orality and Literacy. The technologizing of the word. Routledge

Turner, Freda. (November, 2005) Incorporating Digital E-books into Educational Curriculum. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, No. 11, Vol. 2, Pg. 47-52. (PDF File)

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 9:06 am }

How would you recommend that educators deal with the fact that for some students the content is often seen as secondary to the format of their work?

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