The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Category — Commentary 2

The school library and the breakout of the visual

In Chapter 4 of his book, Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print, Jay David Bolter (2001) discusses the rise of the visual and its impact on text.  As a Teacher-Librarian the rise of the visual in our culture is particular interest to me.  As our post-print generation moves through the education system we are being challenged to redefine the nature of libraries and their role in education.  In this commentary I view Bolter’s work through the lens of my profession.


Of immediate interest in Bolter’s work is the notion that images on the World Wide Web dominate but images on the printed page are contained by the text that surrounds them.  There is an element of control in print culture that is not evident in web-based applications.  Specifically mentioned is the way that professional journals and other scholarly texts surround the images they permit and supervise the reading of the image.


Bolter points out that even when images dominate in scholarly text there is little doubt that the text is in a position of control.  He refers to this use of image as “textural”.  This notion gives rise to the question of whether images in web-based works don’t often provide this same function.  When I think of the way that I, my colleagues and my students use images in the products of our learning it seems that they often serve to give texture to the work.  Images are frequently included after text is written or are accompanied by explanatory text.  This may indicate that our use of image is still in its infancy to some extent.  Are those of us born of a predominantly print-based culture slow to learn how to harness the power of the visual?


Bolter questions what is happening to print and prose in what he calls the, “late age of print” (2001) and suggests that text is morphing itself to both compete with and incorporate the proliferation of images and their inherent cultural power.  In the school library this is evident in the rise of graphic novelizations of classic children’s books such as the Hardy Boys series by Scott Lobdell and Paulo Henrique.  Text in these graphic novels is far less than in the original book versions and are accompanied by images that serve to both complement and supplement the story.  Works such as the ground-breaking, The adventure of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick offer a combination of text and stand-alone images to tell the story.  Additionally, many text-based works now offer web-based links to additional story features and activities based on the books.  These applications are largely visual and demonstrate the turning tide children’s literature.  An excellent example of this is the 39 Clues series, by Scholastic Press.


Interesting too is the suggestion that this remediation of print is born out of both enthusiasm and fear.  Change is generally a feared state of being and as a Teacher-Librarian I am constantly aware of the combination of these reactions to changes in our formerly print-based culture among my professional colleagues.  While some embrace and endorse the changes in literacy there are a great number who wish to stem the tide of change in order to maintain their sense of purpose.


Teacher-Librarians, in their quest to maintain the sanctity of the physical library space and all that it contains, are also uniquely challenged by the fact, as Bolter explains, that text is now competing, “for a reader’s attention with a variety of pictorial elements, any or all of which may be in motion” (2001).   This increasingly visual world with its cultural expectation of high quality images, special effects and incredible animations makes capturing the attention of today’s students very difficult.  Students are often witnessing works of text as image-based before they discover that the material existed in a print-based form long before it was released as a full-length feature movie.  There have been a number of films based on children’s literature in the last few years.  What Teacher-Librarians are commenting on is how often these movies serve as the first introduction to the material for most children.  Eragon, Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, Where the wild things are, and Hoot are some of the many movie scripts derived from books.  Many of my professional colleagues criticize these movies and what they perceive as their detrimental effects on reading.  However, I often notice in my own practice that these movies often lead my students to seek out the books that the movie plots came from.  In this way the text seems to be benefited by the image and draws a new generation of consumers of print into the fold.


The breakout of the visual will undoubtedly have significant impacts on many areas of our culture.  This impact will not escape the school library and its keepers.  Teacher-Librarians are at a cultural turning point.  They will need to find a way to adapt and manage as text changes in the wake the rise of the visual.  How well they will fare remains to be seen.



Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

November 8, 2009   1 Comment

Refashioning the Writing Space

Refashioning the writing space for the elementary school student

Commentary #2~ Kelly Kerrigan Section 65A

What does the writing space look like today?

The writing space has undergone many changes in technology, from stone to papyrus to manuscript to computer screen. “Each writing space is a material and visual field, whose properties are determined by a writing technology and the uses to which that technology is put by a culture of readers and writers” (Bolter, 2001, p. 12). Bolter discusses how recording, organizing and presenting text is now done with a word processor and the Internet. One might see this as the modern take of the wall of a public bathroom stall. There are thoughts to ponder, to take away, and others to merely disregard. Sifting through these thoughts can take a moment or a few trips. It is our prerogative to decide what’s worthwhile.

Most adults are aware of changes to our current writing space, but what does that mean for the elementary school student? “Our culture has chosen to fashion these technologies into a writing space that is animated, visually complex, and malleable in the hands of both writer and reader” (Bolter, 2001, p. 13). For a parent of an elementary school student today, this image of the computer and online writing space as being malleable could provoke major fear for their child. This is especially true if the parent has never used the internet during their secondary or post-secondary education years. As a teacher, I have come across many parents who are opposed to using the internet as a writing space. For the children that I teach, their generation needs to be taught how to use this space appropriately and to their advantage, for this is their codex!

Bolter argues that the writing space is a cultural decision. Our current use of the internet as a writing space is a refashioning of the printed book. That being said, do we try to differentiate within this writing space? Do we as readers and writers tend to shun those rants and raves on weblogs and prefer instead those who have posted a document? As if those who took the time to post a document are much more competent in their thoughts than those who write in the common forum or wiki. Teachers must help students discern what is appropriate, but also help them use these spaces effectively.

For the elementary teacher and student, the forum and wiki are great spaces for students to develop their writing skills (McPherson, 2006). Collaboration within these contexts also provides an excellent space for skill development. “Unlike much of the individualized writing required in school and the real world, writing entries in a wiki demands that students be taught writing skills that emphasize negotiation, cooperation, collaboration, and respect for one another’s work and thoughts” (McPherson, 2006). One could imagine the wiki as the technology replacing the bathroom stall!

How does the changing writing space affect literacy?
As Bolter states, “literacy is, among other things, the realization that language can have a visual as well as an aural dimension, that one’s words can be recorded and shown to others who are not present, perhaps not even alive, at the time of the recording” (p.16). Within a wiki, students can use different mediums to enhance their message. “… Students can use wikis to insert music, graphics, video, and photos in their writing and to communicate meanings that were once inaccessible or not fully expressed through the printed word” (McPherson, 2006). This has a huge effect on the overall literacy of a group of students. For those who struggle with writing assignments or with conveying meaning in their work, using a multimodal approach to complement their writing can foster student achievement in literacy.

Research has shown that these new technologies being employed in the classroom challenge the traditional views of literacy (Jewitt, 2005). The technologies that create a new writing space enable a new level of literacy for elementary school students. What it means to be literate in the 21st century is very different from previously set standards. Unfortunately, students are caught between what is written in the curriculum and what is real. Teachers who embrace the new literacy standards are often criticized or held back from trying out new ideas, such as wikis; While older generations of teachers force their students to maintain the literacy levels they were once held to. The refashioning of the writing space for today’s student population involves new technologies, including the use of online writing spaces. All teachers need to embrace these technologies in order to maintain a high level of literacy for their students.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jewitt, C. (2005) ‘Multimodality, “reading”, and “writing” for the 21st century’,
Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(3), 315–31.

McPherson, K. (2006). wikis and student writing. Teacher Librarian, 34(2), 70-72. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database on November 4, 2009.

November 8, 2009   1 Comment

Revolutionizing information organization and academic authority

Commentary #2 – In response to Michael Wesch’s video, “Information R/evolution” (Module 4)

Appropriately “hyper” for the purposes of framing hypertext and the changing technologies of writing and archiving information, Micheal Wesch’s Information R/evolution is a dynamic interplay of text technologies that incorporates both the hypertext discussion of Jay David Bolter and the organization discussion of Walter Ong. Wesch speaks to the evolution of the pre-typographic notion that information is “a thing… housed in a logical place… where it can be found” and how we have now moved towards a place where technology affords the ability for anyone to create, critique, organize and understand. Information R/evolution touches upon two interesting developments supported by the hypertext environment of our technological world: the nature by which information is stored and the nature of authority.

Information R/evolution starts out with images of the typewriter, standard filing cabinet and card catalogue. This is intentional as each of these three objects were, for many years, definitive symbols of the way by which information was recorded, stored and retrieved. In unpacking the information evolution, these images quickly transform into those of word processing programs, blogs and search engines. Wesch suggests that it does not take an expert to attend to organizational tasks; rather, we are all responsible for the tagging, bookmarking, categorizing and otherwise organizing of information. The organizational affordances of technology are illustrated in the video and echo Walter Ong’s discussion about categories and lists and how they create meaning out of space, impressing through “tidiness and inevitability” (Ong, 2002, p.120). Wesch illustrates this revolution as a true transcendence of place with regards to the means by which information can be rethought “beyond material constraints”. The ability to store information simultaneously in multiple places is not only crucial to the way information is stored but also crucial to the speed at which information is retrieved. Bolter (2001) further discusses this issue in his study of hypertext and cites hyperlinking as the process by which the reader can “continue indefinitely…through the textual space…throughout the Internet” (p.27). An interesting facet of Wesch’s video is that he does not rely on lengthy text to illustrate his point, rather, he demonstrates visually the remediation of print by modeling the organizational affordances of hypertext on a single computer screen, devoid of the paper trail that previously defined information technology.

The nature of authority is touched upon in Information R/evolution and it is suggested that the nature of modern typographic culture has broadened the constraints of previously established information authority (academics, librarians etc.). Information R/evolution raises the issue of how people, either for personal or academic purposes, come to find the information they are seeking and what format they are ultimately presented with. Simply put, “together, we create more information than experts”, is a powerful truth that highlights not only the responsibility of those posting on the web to categorize their information, but also the fact that authorship is seemingly more open. The boundaries of expert and non-expert were more defined in a chirographic and early typographic culture whereby there was an entire process surrounding how one became an author and therefore, an authority. Wesch encourages the viewer to think about authority in the context of this information revolution. While there exists scholarly access points through university libraries, Google Scholar etc., the mainstream user relies on search engines such as Yahoo and Google in order to find definitive sources of information. The breadth of information allows the viewer to view not only authoritative sites (National Geographic, BBC, etc.) but also collaboratively edited sites (Wikipedia) and personal sites (parenting blogs, personal interest sites, etc.) thereby creating a multidimensional approach to any given topic.

However, Wesch indirectly highlights the flip side, which is the uncertainty of the information found. The access itself may be much easier by being able to use one’s personal computer to access library catalogues and search engines rather than searching, in person, through an onerous card catalogue, however, the expanse of the web does lessen the power of established authority. Wesch cites Wikipedia as an example by stating “Wikipedia has 15 times as many words as the next largest encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica”. While this is a seemingly simple statement, it has much larger ramifications for the growing debate about authority on the web, as Wikipedia is a collaboratively created encyclopedia that can be openly edited. More powerful than this statement is the fact that Wesch uses a live screen clip showing himself editing Wikipedia in “real time” and then adding one more person to the tally of the 282,874 contributors that appeared at the time, illustrating the very fluid and “living” nature of information on the Internet.  While effective in drawing forth questions about authority and research, I would be interested to see Wesch explore, more closely, the nature of how one conducts research through a similarly styled video.

Bolter speaks of the “breakout of the visual” and in that spirit, Wesch shows that the dominating visual message of Information R/evolution can be just as powerful as written prose exploring the same topic. Wesch’s visual inspires reflective thought about the evolution of information but also the current revolution taking place in terms of information organization, conducting research and the nature of authority.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ong, Walter. (2002) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Wesch, Michael. (2007). Information R/evolution . Retrieved from

November 7, 2009   1 Comment

Speech Recognition: Will it change the way we write?

At the beginning of his book, Bolter (2001, p.xiii) states, “At present, however, it seems to me that the computer is not leading to a new kind of orality, but rather to an increased emphasis on visual communication”.  While it is true that we are seeing an increase in visual modes of representation, we are also seeing an increase in the availability and usefulness of speech recognition technologies.  Perhaps the “pendulum” is also swinging back towards a new kind of orality (Bolter, 2001, p.xiii).

Speech recognition, also known as voice recognition, converts speech to text and allows users to verbally direct their computer to perform specific commands. With the use of a microphone (either an external one or one internally built into the computer) words dictated are reproduced into a word processor document.  Speech recognition allows the user to verbally specify punctuation, spell out acronyms, move the cursor, format texts, change fonts, save files (and more), all without touching the keyboard.   Errors can be corrected by speaking the name of the word which is incorrect and then saying “correct that”.   This will produce a list of words that closely match and one simply needs to speak aloud the number of the line that the correct word is on, followed by “click ok” and the word is corrected. 

 Speech recognition technologies are extremely beneficial for people with learning disabilities and those who are physically disabled.  A relative of mine, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident, is able to dictate and send emails and update his Facebook page by using speech recognition. This technology could also help young children learn to read and write by allowing them to see on a computer screen, their spoken words turn into written words.  Cavanagh (2009) found that “Students who use speech recognition are writing more, writing independently, spelling correctly, using longer words, using more complex written language and writing thoughts that have never been written before”.   Another advantage, for people of all ages, is the ease of translating conversations, interviews, notes and other information into a word document, enabling easy access to all sections of the material.

 With the use of speech recognition, we will no longer be restricted by the speed at which we can write or type, but by the speed at which we can produce and form ideas and thoughts within our minds.  Speech recognition would allow us to reduce distractions and keep our minds on what we are saying.  This would be like a “funnel” which according to Ronald Kellogg (1989) is, “an aid that channels the writer’s attention into only one or two processes”.  By removing the desire to edit while speaking, speech recognition allows for the uninterrupted flow of ideas into words.

 Clearly there are some valuable advantages to the use of speech recognition technology, however, is it simply another method of getting our thoughts into words on a document, or does it alter the way we write?  McLuhan’s (1994) expression, “The medium is the message”, seems to say that as dictation is a different medium than writing, each would create a different final product.

 Gould, Conti, and Hovanyecz, (1983) research found that participants performed at least as well when dictating to the listening typewriter as they did when writing.  John Gould’s (1978) experiment found that after considerable experience with dictation, participants were 20-65% faster at dictating than at writing similar quality compositions. 

 As stated by Willard (1997), “Speech and writing are fundamentally different; people seldom speak as they write, or write as they speak (unless they are preparing a written copy of a speech)”.  When dictating and using speech recognition technologies, one might have the tendency to speak more formally, in a style more ‘suitable’ for writing.  If, the typically more informal style of conversation is used, this would change the style of writing produced.  However, speech recognition is generally used to get main ideas and thoughts onto a word document, with most users then editing and re-writing sections of their original draft.

 Dictation and writing are different, but effective methods to get words on ‘paper’.  As Gould (1978) states, “Composition is still the fundamental skill necessary for quality writing, and method of composition is of secondary importance”.  Each individual’s writing style is different; therefore, it will be up to the individual who uses the speech recognition to decide if and how it changes and defines their own personal style of writing.



 Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

 Cavanagh, C.A.  (2009). Speech Recognition Trial Protocol.  Closing the Gap, 26(5), 8-11.   Retrieved from:

 Gould, J. D. (1978). How experts dictate.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 4(4), 648-661.

 Gould, J., Conti, J. & Hovanyecz, T. (1983). Composing Letters with a Simulated Listening Typewriter. Communications of the ACM , 26, 295-308.  

 Kellogg, R. T. (1989).  Idea Processors: Computer Aids for Planning and Composing Text. Computer Writing Environments: Theory, Research, and Design. Ed. Bruce Britton and Shawn Glynn. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 57-92.

 McLuhan, M. (1994).  Understanding media: The extensions of man.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 Willard, E. (1997). Technical Speaking? Automatic Speech Recohnition and Technical Writing.  Cal Poly State University.  Retrieved from:

November 3, 2009   4 Comments

Formal Response # 2 – The Evolution of Culture: From Oral to Visual Dominance

      The dawn of the printing press not only changed the realm of writing, it also fostered a crucial change in human thought process and learning. The evolution of the written word into a mass-produced, evenly distributed visual work promoted a cultural shift from oral to visual dominance. Walter Ong provides important insights on the cultural shift and provides thorough examples to validate it. However he falls short of providing an adequate theory for the physiological changes within the human brain. This does not necessitate that he is incorrect, but rather that more information could be provided. The visual shift occurring in our culture has not always been met with enthusiasm. In fact, there is a form of backlash against the visual stating that it cultivates a lack of intelligence. Ong’s central message indicates a move from the oral to visual realm. Yet it can also be theorized that the shift is actually a return back to the visual. The theory we accept is minor in comparison to the interchange of the two realms, which will provide major implications for western culture and self-consciousness.

      The printing press is the technological advancement that ushered in the cultural swing of oral to visual. Ong argues that the letterpress situates words in space and locks them in place forming a visually appealing work. The printing press also allowed access to works en masse and was structured in a manor more easily read than that of manuscripts written by hand. Marshall McLuhan (1962) suggests that a technology, such as the printing press, creates changes in our thoughts and expressions. In other words, the new technology changes our consciousness. Ong (1982) uses numerous examples as evidence for the advancement of the visual cultural shift theory. The creation of lists, indexes, and even our own axioms indicate our move from oral to visual. Ong’s references to different cultures and examples are extensive and confirm that a shift had occurred, but Ong lacks physiological evidence as to why a change had taken place in human consciousness.

       The human brain is divided into two sides, the left and the right. Studies of patients with split brain provide us with insights into how the brain works. Their findings suggest that the left portion of the brain is responsible for speech, abstract thinking, logic, and numeracy. The right portion of the brain deals with spatial recognition and facial recognition, suggesting that the right portion of the brain is more visually oriented. Leonard Shlain confirms this theory in his book the “Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image”: “The right brain is nonverbal. … It comprehends the language of cries, gestures, grimaces, cuddling, sucking, touching, and body stance. Its emotional states are under little volitional control and betray true feelings through fidgeting, blushing, or smirking.” (Shlain, 1998, 18-19). Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, argues that cognition based on the visual is faster and more accurate than cognition influenced by words or logic (Gladwell, 2007). Therefore, the rapid change in our culture due to new technologies could cause us to use the rapid, more accurate side of the brain for processing new information. The theory suggested here has fascinating implications particularly for the fast paced world of the 21st century. Our reliance on visual images could be due to our need to get information at a more rapid pace.

       Visual perception may be a more powerful tool for incorporating information than oral. The New Encyclopedia website further demonstrates a visual dominance due to the fact that visual perception is multi-channeled, whereas auditory perceptions are mono-channeled. “The eye can absorb that many different things at once without confusion or overload, but the ear’s inability to take in multiple soundtracks — multiple dialogues — at the same time is further evidence of the greater power of visual perception compared with perception of aural (word-based) communication” (New Encyclopedia, 2008). The invention of the printing press created a basis for visual uniformity causing the shift in a need for multichannel communication.

      As Ong suggests, culture and perception have shifted from orality to the visual. However, Ong provides numerous examples of intellectuals who revolted against the use of writing, but no examples of those who revolt against the cultural shift from auditory to visual dominance. Lester Faigley, professor of English at the University of Texas, provides some of the major criticisms of the visual shift in his keynote speech presented at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing (1998 Conference) entitled “Technology and Literacy in a Wired Academy”. He attests that many scholars are researching the thoughts of images encroaching on written territory: “Barbara Maria Stafford has examined how current attitudes toward images were formed in eighteenth-century England, when educated people began associating images with ignorance, illiteracy, and deceit” (Faigley, 1998, pg. 4). Images were also seen as creating a loss of intellect. This can be seen in Williams Wordsworth’s poem, “Illustrated books and Newspapers”, in which he stated new technologies creating images that foster a lack of intelligence and a move backwards instead of forwards in intellectual discovery. Wordsworth indicates his apprehension of image based culture while trying to hold onto the auditory traditions:

 “Back towards caverned life’s first rude career.

Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!

Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear

Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!” (Wordsworth)

 Could the shift from oral to visual perception be a return to the visual? Ong (1982) suggests that the change occurs but does not necessarily reference whether the shift is a return to the visual or a new conceptual change. Harold Innis suggests that it could be a return to the visual. “the discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear” (Innis, 1951, p. 72). It is true that before written text many visuals were used in order to indicate meaning. Different cultures have used picture images to facilitate communication. However, in western culture, it is clear that manuscripts contained visual images as well as text, suggesting perhaps that the shift was from visual to oral and back to visual. The New Encyclopedia’s section on visual culture also asserts that change could have had a visual starting point. Similar to the creation of the printing press, the technological advancements in image making changed our cultural outlook. “The development of photography meant that a mass image-based culture could begin to emerge again, after visual culture had been overwhelmed by verbal and literate culture. To be sure, many innovations in drawing and painting had been achieved, and images had figured widely in the pre-photographic age; but they depended on the skill and perception of the image-maker.” (New Encyclopedia, 2008). Yet, what is more vital at this point is what this shift does to and for our culture.

      The shift to a visually dominated culture has its implications for how we perceive ourselves as well as how we learn and interact. The focus, as suggested by Ong, indicates that we are more independent but with the realization that we do not have to be. The technological advancements will change how we read, what we focus on (ourselves vs. society), and the world of academia. Hyperbooks and easily accessible mass media images, and videos will help shape our understanding. What is important to recognize is that the shift in our cultural perceptions is crucial to our understanding. Yet we are only now recognizing the interplay or relationship of the written word and the visual realm. The physical method of reading will shift along with our thoughts of writing conventions. The possibilities of this interplay will have a momentous effect on our current cultural belief system.


 Faigley, Lester. (1998) Technology and Literacy in a Wired Academy. Address. Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing. Minnesota, Minneapolis. Retrieved from

 Gladwell, Malcolm. (2007). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. Back Bay Books.

 Innis, Harold. (1951). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto.

 McLuhan, M. (1962).  The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

 Ong, Walter (1982) Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge.

 Shlain, Leonard. (1998). The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking, 1998.

 The New Encycopedia. (2008). Visual Culture. Retrieved on 7 Oct. 2009. Retrieved from

 Wordsworth, William. “Illustrated Books and Newspapers”. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958.

November 2, 2009   1 Comment

Word piloting or word journey?

When it comes to writing and reading, literate cultures have never had so much choice as in today’s day and age of “hypertext”.  We are faced with the choice of being captains of our own textual ships or to sit back and be taken on a journey of discovery by trained professionals that are bound by a pre-determined itinerary.  As Bolter (2001) outlines we are entering or perhaps are already in the “late age of print” and are moving towards a remediation of print just as we have seen in the past with the advent of the printing press.  With each “remediation” there are losses and gains.  One of the strengths of the current remediation to “hypertext” is the associative capacity of the technique.  Traditional print has been described as being highly linear, patriarchal, domineering, subordinative and “non natural” given that humans naturally think associatively (Coover, 1992).  There are critics of hypertext such as Birkerts (1994) and Coover (1992) that contend that the “meditative immersion” that can only come from a master author taking the reader on a journey of discovery is something that hypertext cannot reproduce.  Whether the author is truly dead, as Foucault and others claim, and society will choose to rest control back from the corpse like grip of the author or continue to give up their control and instead be lead on a journey designed and planned by the author still remains to be seen.

Bolter (2001) makes the argument that contemporary authors have already made the transition from the purely linear writing structures, such as those seen in scrolls and codexes, to a more associative writing system.  “In a modern book, the table of contents (listing chapters and sometimes sections) defines the hierarchy, while the indices record the associative lines of thought that permeate the text.” p.34.   Footnotes and endnotes have also been argued as being associative in nature.  However, this argument applies very well to text books and scientific writing.  Where the objection falls flat is when it applies to poetry, prose and novels.   Hypertext has been promoted by technophiles as being truly revolutionary in it’s ability to link ideas that are connected but different.  Thus the reader has been given the unique opportunity to explore ideas and concepts in an almost infinite flow of information. However, despite this freedom, Birkets (1994) contends that the avalanche of choice and information that is now at literate societies’ finger tips can lead to confusion.  As Coover (1992) states:

Navigational procedures:  how do you move around in infinity without getting lost?  The structuring of the space can be so compelling and confusing as to utterly absorb the narrator and to exhaust the reader.  And there is the related problem of filtering.  With an unstable text that can be intruded upon by other author-readers, how do you, caught in a maze, avoid the trivial?  How do you duck the garbage?  Venerable novelistic values like, unity, integrity, coherence, vision, voice, seem to be in danger.  Eloquence is being redefined.  “Text” has lost its canonical certainty.  How does one judge, analyze, write about a work that never reads the same way twice. p.2

The domination of the author’s will upon the reader is one of the arguments held against the more traditional form of writing.  This imposition of will is exclusive in nature whereas electronic writing is inclusive (Bolter, 2001).  Hypertext is also touted as being far more than writing in having the capacity to incorporate multi-media components such as video and audio files.  But just as all traditional writing starts out from an associative source so to does the author of hypertext confine the writing and associative links into some resemblance of order.  Thus the author’s will is still felt by the reader/writer of hypertext.  So whether modern day texts have already incorporated elements of associative thinking is really a moot point as hypertext continues to be organized and structured by the author.

One of the most vocal critics of electronic writing is (Birkerts, 1994).  Birkerts (1994) argues that the ephemeral nature of the electronic word has been described as essentially “weightless” and thus phenomenologically the word is less than absolute.  The power is turned over from the author to the machine.  Authority now rests not in the hands of an informed and educated author but in the more esoteric computer thus conferring power to a less accountable author.  One could make the argument that in the current age of collaborative writing, especially as applied to hypertext, accountability of the author cannot occur.  Who does one question when erroneous or outright falsehoods are identified in a collaboratively developed , hyper-textual document?  Who defends the ideas and concepts developed and published in a collaboratively developed, electronic medium?  Birkerts (1994) argues that one of the most significant losses that occurs between the remediation from print to hypertext is the general loss in detail.  The electronic author does not necessarily have to weigh their words but the words simply spring forth in a torrent of information, a veritable flood of information that threatens to drown the reader.   Berkerts (1994) asks the question, “…when trained reader encounters skilled writer, will that reader ever achieve that meditative immersion that is, for me, one of the main incentives for reading?”

Like a surfer that can, with training, learn to surf the monstrous super waves, perhaps consumers of hypertext can learn to navigate the wave of information that is as far away as a click.  There could be a place for both forms of writing.  Traditional print may remain in a form that allows the author to guide the reader on a journey, very much like a cruise ship, placing ones mind in the hands of the  professionally trained captain/author,  resigning themselves to a planned itinerary and destination but trading choice for guidance.  Those that choose to compose and read hypertext can rest power from the captain and steer their literary boat wherever they will however with this freedom comes with the tendency to lose ones way.  Whatever the decision the reader/writer has choice and that “can make all the difference”.


Bolter, Jay, David. (2001). Writing Space:Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print.  (Second Edition). Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

Birkerts, Sven. (1994).  The Gutenberg Ellegies:  The fate of reading in an electronic age.  A Fawcett Columbine Book, P

Coover, Roberts (1992)  The end of books. Downloaded from on November 1st, 2009.

November 1, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary #2 – Which came first, culture or technology?

“It is not a question of seeing writing as an external technological force that influences or changes cultural practices; instead writing is always a part of culture.… technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside.” (Bolter, p. 19)


To answer this question, we need to begin with a definition of ‘culture’ and ‘technology’ as it relates to knowledge. Culture can be defined as “… the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” (Merriam-Webster) Technology is defined as “…the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.” (Merriam-Webster) The distinction between each is clear, as is the connection between the two. Culture is about acquiring knowledge while technology is about applying knowledge. There has been some debate about culture and technology and whether they are inseparable or not. This commentary will take a look at three of these arguments.

In Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, Bolter was very clear as to what he believed, particularly when it came to writing. “The technical and the cultural dimensions of writing are so intimately related that it is not useful to try to separate them…” (Bolter, p. 19) Bolter went to great lengths to explain the connection between technology and culture; how different technologies of writing involved different materials and that these materials were used in different ways and for different reasons. He used ancient writing as an example. Technologies such as papyrus, ink, and the art of book making may have been common to all cultures but what was different were the writing styles and genders of ancient writing and the social and political practices of ancient rhetoric. He argued that modern printing practices followed a similar pattern as does today’s technologies. Computers, browsers, word processors are our writing technologies but these technologies don’t change cultures per say. If anything, culture has a way of initiating changes in technology.

In his book, Orality and Literacy, Ong argued that the introduction of writing and print literacy’s have fundamentally restructured consciousness and culture. In chapter four of his book, Ong discussed the development of script and how this restructures our consciousness. Ong claimed that “…writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment… Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word.” (Ong, p. 80 – 81) Ong suggested that humans are naturally tool-employing beings and that these tools create opportunities for new modes of expression that would not otherwise exist. He used the example of the violinist who internalizes the technology (violin) making the tool seemly second nature, or a part of the self. “The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensifying its interior life.” (Ong, p. 82) In terms of culture and technology, Ong’s technological determinism clearly makes it impossible for him to separate the two.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan argued that technology was nothing more than an extension of man. “The shovel we use for digging holes is a kind of extension of the hands and feet. The spade is similar to the cupped hand, only it is stronger, less likely to break, and capable of removing more dirt per scoop than the hand. A microscope, or telescope is a way of seeing that is an extension of the eye.” (Kappelman) When an individual or society makes use of a technology in such a way that it extends the human body or the human mind, it does so at the expense of some other technology which is then either modified or amputated. “The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence.” (Kappelman) McLuhan later developed a tetrad to explain his theory. It consisted of four questions or laws; what does the technology extend, what does it make obsolete, what is retrieved and what does the technology reverse into if it is overextended. As was the case with Ong, McLuhan did not make any clear distinction between technology and culture.

Bolter disagrees with the assessment of technological determinists like McLuhan’s “extension of man” claim and Ong’s “restructured consciousness”. He uses cause and effect to prove his point. He points to the early beginnings of the World Wide Web, and how technology (hardware and software) was used to create it. According to Bolter, culture was responsible for changing the Web into “… a carnival of commercial and self-promotional Wes sites…” (Bolter, p. 20) Culture then demanded changes to the hardware and software to allow for such things as censorship. “Wherever we start in such a chain of cause and effect, we can identify an interaction between technical qualities and social constructions – an interaction so intimate that it is hard to see where the technical ends and the social begins.” (Bolter, p. 20) Bolter doesn’t adhere to the ‘doom and gloom’ rhetoric of McLuhan who was “…deeply concerned about man’s willful blindness to the downside of technology.” (Kappelman) and he in mindful of Ong who said “Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it…” (Ong, p. 79) Instead, Bolter believed that “… it is possible to understand print technology is an agent of change without insisting that it works in isolation or in opposition to other aspects of culture.” (Bolter, p. 19 – 20)

It seems reasonable to assume that because technology can infringe upon culture and culture can impinge on technology, the two are in a sense inseparable. This may not be a case of one coming before the other as much as both of them coexisting at the same time. Either way, we only need to be cognizant of the fact that both will continue to evolve either as a result of or in spite of the other.


Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

culture. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from

Kappelman, Todd (July 2002), Marshall McLuhan:”The Medium is the Message”, Probe Ministries. Retrieved from

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

technology. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from

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October 31, 2009   1 Comment