Baron, Dennis. A better pencil: readers, writers and the digital revolution.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xviii, 259 p. ISBN 978-0-19-991400-5. £11.99

I have never really understood those who suggest that the computer and its software in the shape of the word-processor is going to destroy our ability to write effectively. I've used a keyboard since as a raw recruit into the Royal Air Force for my two, enforced years of military service, I was asssigned to be a shorthand typist. Like everyone else, I did aptitude tests during the initial training phase and, apparently, showed genuine talent for wireless telegraphy, but, in the regular habit of the military, this evidence was ignored! Consequently, I typed everything subsequently, including my PhD thesis, and I would have been very grateful if I'd been able to use a word-processor instead of my portable Olivetti typewriter. I believe that use of a word processor can improve one's writing, simply because of the ease with which infelicitous phrases can be instantly erased and replaced, and errors detected automatically - as long as one sets the dictionary to UK English.

Dennis Baron's book is about this phenomenon: the way technological developments are decried by the doom-sayers and then prove to be even more useful than their originators imagined. As Baron shows, the notion begins some time ago, when Plato has Socrates warning Phaedrus of the dangers of writing:

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.

The notion that writing things down, rather than hearing them repeatedly, could be an aid to memory was some years ahead!

The author reviews subsequent technological developments relating to writing and reading, showing that virtually every technological development was initially held to be detrimental to either on or the other activity. He also notes that the invention of the pocket calculator brought out the same kinds of criticisms in relation to our ability to calculate mentally. There are various entertainments in the book, beginning with Chapter 3, Thoreau's pencil. The Thoreau family money, which enabled him to wander in the Maine woods, came from pencil manufacture and, when he wasn't wandering in the woods or pausing by Walden pond, Thoreau was a pencil designer. But, as Baron says,

I'm sure that were Thoreau alive today, he would not be writing to the Times with a pencil of his own manufacture. He had better business sense than that. More likely, he would be keyboarding his complaints about the information superhighway on a personal computer that he assembled from spare parts in his garage.

This is a book that holds one's interest on a somewhat unlikely topic, and the message throughout is that every technological development is decried, until time passes and it is found to be invaluable. In my own experience as an editor, I do not find anything in the papers submitted that is the result of misuse of technology: the inability to express ideas simply and effectively is neither improved nor worsened by the word processor, it is the mental word processor that needs to improve, rather than the machine.

Incidentally, after the tests I mentioned in the first paragraph, I learnt that being a wireless operator involved being stuck out in a hut somewhere on an airfield for hours on end. The other recruits knew this and I stood out in the tests because they deliberately performed badly! Who knows, if I'd become a wireless operator I might have remained in the RAF and the world would have been saved from these words?

Professor Tom Wilson
June, 2013