In Language Online: Investigating Digital Texts and Practices, by David Barton and Carmen Lee, they write about a research strategy where individuals are asked to write a technology biography. The goal is to help both the writer and the researchers understand how the affordances of technology were introduced and taken up in an individual’s life. Over the past year, I have moved more actively into digital spaces, both in terms of writing and pedagogy, and I have been struck how my initial introduction to technology has shaped my current use. As a way to understand how to navigate those historical influences in a Web 2.0+ landscape, I thought it might be useful to write a series of biographical episodes of the many technologies that I have encountered, used, discarded, and picked up. While no one piece would capture it all, taken collectively it might help frame what values and practices I would want to bring into the world of Web 2.0+ as well as which might be discarded.
Here it is probably important to begin by noting the most prestigious writing platform available in my home as a child was a typewriter that “wrote cursive.” It was stored in a white leather case, often placed on the top shelf of closet safely out of reach. When there was a special report or letter to be written, the typewriter would be taken down and placed on the dining room table. Surrounding the typewriter would be several pieces of lined white paper, written on with ballpoint pens, sometimes with red ink noting places to revise or correct. Perhaps further back would be notecards, in pencil, with quotes or citations. At the greatest distance would be books, borrowed from the library, often slightly dated or completed outdated. Later in life, I would come to understand the real library of intellectual materials was being built by my father, book by book, as he read at night, storing each book upstairs in our attic. With the exception of the lamp shining illuminating the scene, there was not electronic component to this event.
It is cliché to note that in such an environment, the time and labor associated with revision was real – as was the expense of the writing materials. This positioned the writer as someone who had to take material circumstances into account when piecing together the parts of a paper, from the time to get to the library to the time to type (and correct) the final version. These moments also represented a kind of interruption in the family dynamic since parents had to support much of labor needed to get materials into the house, get space in the house to write. My original sense of writing technologies then was wrapped up in the political economy in which I existed – though clearly I would never frame it that was a child. And I think as I move to research, write, and engage in the digital, it is the materiality of the labor which produces the digital, the material resources of time/labor/expense required to get the digital in working class homes, and the interruption such digital technologies bring into the discursive and literacy practices in the home that interests me the most.
For instance, I am currently working on a project studying how an international alliance of working class writers initially used print technology to both articulate a common political vision for their communities and then, as Web 1.0/2.0/2.0+ emerged, struggled to find ways to use that technology for similar goals. Here the question is “Can literacy practices goals premised upon print culture seamlessly translate into new technologies? What affordances does this new technology offer to such work?” Indeed, it was these questions that led to my reading Barton/Lee’s book, mentioned above.
To return to biography for one final moment: It was not until college that I became aware that a cursive typewriter, while seemingly professional within a working-class home, was not actually an appropriate technology for the professional world of the academy. In my first year in college, I was hired to work in the office of New Student Programs, which was charged with organizing Freshman Orientation. Once in a professional office, I discovered that “real” typewriters that had a metallic “ball” that spun as you struck the keys. This “new technology” not only allowed someone to type quicker, it also allowed you to replace the ball, choosing different fonts for different occasions. It also sat on a metal cart, allowing it to be wheeled over to the person who needed to use it. No white leather case, but a plastic cover covered it at night. It was all very utilitarian, speaking of labor, not style; corporate business not personal expression.
Behind the final cubicle, there was also a computer, seemingly small then but would no doubt be considered large today. It was off limits, the person working it keeping to himself. It would be almost a year before I was to have any working relationship to that machine, but in shifting to the new typewriter, I could already see that my sense of writing, of the writer, was going to be profoundly altered.