From clay to computer chips: new systems of writing, new ways of deciphering?

Address by Daniel J. Caron to the Royal Society of Canada Symposium: Literacy and Citizenship in the 21st Century

Good day. Allow me first to thank the Organizing Committee of the symposium for this opportunity to share with you my thoughts on the impact of the digital age on our system of writing and on the functioning of our society.
 
The evolution of technologies and the resulting human behaviours continually push the boundaries of society. From medieval times to the post-modern era, the locus of social action has shifted from the town to the city to the State. It then transcended geographical boundaries to eventually become established in global networks.
 
While globalization has always been present in discourse and in the human imagination-consider Seneca, Voltaire or, more recently, Saskia Sassen or Mandela-it is only recently, first through the conveyance, the mobility of goods and people, and now through the message, through content, that this globalization has assumed increasingly concrete forms.
 
These changes have altered our conception of time and space, the way we interact and learn, our daily lives, the nature of our relationships and even of humans, both biologically and ethically.
 
In a digital society, it is difficult to understand the mindset that prevailed in earlier times. But in order to grasp the nature of these changes, we must realize that the main determinant is the ever deepening interaction between humanity and technology.
 
Over time, we have wanted to record and to commit to memory. Through the spoken word and its recitations, the written word and its texts, and now through digitization and its warbles, every age wants to leave its mark.
 
Oral cultures introduced memorization, the dissemination and transmission of knowledge through memory and mnemonics, which imposed temporal and spatial limitations.
 
The advent of script and the rapid spread of clay tablets promoted writing as both a private and a social memory tool. The Babylonians and Assyrians used the document, the archive, to record deeds of property and the sale of slaves.
 
Nevertheless, throughout much of history, writing was the prerogative of the educated: priests, rulers or administrators who governed from central locations.
 
With the advent of movable type, the production and dissemination of information became democratized. Even as power structures continued to evolve, the writing system continued to exert control over the production, circulation and dissemination of knowledge.
 
Then the rule of electricity, making possible the encoding and transmission of information, further diminished the importance of the geographical distance between the creator and the end-user.
 
Finally, as writing ceded way to the digital, the texture of the space time continuum shifted once again. A series of technical advances in information and broadband technologies resulted in smaller devices: mainframe computers led to personal computers, then smartphones, tablet computers and cybernetic chips.
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More importantly, the "from one to several" model of content sharing between creators and consumers, from ruler to subjects, or from company to customers, gave way to the "from several to several" model, and society has gradually abandoned the unique top-down approach in favour of a culture of content sharing that is more horizontal, single-tiered and multidirectional.
 
Today, we can see that the transition from the predigital to the digital age is challenging the nature of our writing system and, more fundamentally, the conventions once associated with it. The transition from the spoken word to the written word was characterized primarily by a control and interventions that were more indicative of the content production chain.
 
Whether through censoring, publication rules, copyright, notions of information access, transparency and stewardship , the predigital age lent itself well to standards, oversight and control.
 
The digital universe surprises us by revalidating notions intimately related to the oral system, such as the social porosity of discourse, unrestricted participation in the political sphere and the uncontrollable interaction of the truth and the untruth of utterances.
 
What does this mean for us as citizens, and for us as institutions responsible for documentary heritage? There are major repercussions everywhere: for the acquisition and constitution of archives, for the loci of knowledge and their organization, for access. These are fundamental questions.
 

The first question concerns archiving.

Archiving: A new challenge? Even without deliberate selection, selection occurs. Natural, forced, biased or regulated, selection occurs one way or another-with a view to deciding, recalling, remembering, or with a view to building identities, or evidence, or simply for the smooth functioning of society, or to express something.
 
Beginning with Voltaire and his essay Mémoire, a light-hearted look at a world where no memory exists, we reach the other extreme, Borges and his story Funes, the Memorious, which describes the sad fate of man-as-memory in the sense of robotic, mechanical, electronic or informatic-nothing more than the capacity to retain.
 
From this we are able to see the advent of certain practices, such as the creation of things sometimes called documents, sometimes books. But we are moving from a world in which the "control" of documentary output is a fairly easy reflex, towards another, more prolific environment which raises more questions: What should we retain?
 
At the same time, there has arisen a wave of interest in the lessons of history, a need to know one's personal and social origins, and a surprising craving for what will become the loci of memory.
 
These manifestations of interest also create a new passion for that which is "archived," but in a much broader, more inclusive sense: documentary art, personal archives, criminal records, photographs and, along with technological advances, numerous audio and visual products, even holograms, challenging the boundaries between museum, archive and library.
 
Finally, along came informatics, the Web and social networks, and as a kind of consequence, a return to orality through writing. The signs are as omnipresent as the verb was and continues to be in orality. How are we to understand this universe? What of it should we retain? Everything? Borges and Funes lead us to think not. We are gaining a better understanding of the risks, even the incongruities, perils and impossibilities of taking this path.
 
Is it therefore necessary to intellectualize the building of archives? Is this the only viable route? 
 

The second major question concerns the loci of knowledge.

In the analogue world, the national library is a bricks and mortar institution dedicated to knowledge. It is characterized by the ideology of the book: literacy and democracy are supported by a complete collection controlled by professionals, primarily for other professionals to whom the public must apply in order to gain access.
 
Under this model, the establishment of correspondences and the description of documents are the exclusive domain of a coterie of professionals. The space is organized in a way that adheres to a particular order, such as the Dewey decimal system.
 
Within that space, the role of institutions such as ours is that of "place"-a place where items are collected for preservation and display. The primary objective in managing these physical places is the accumulation, the collection of items reflecting society's documentary output.
 
This includes government documents, private archives or books acquired through various selection mechanisms, more or less automatic, such as legal deposit, built on numerous assumptions.
 
Thus far, our role has been greatly facilitated by the intermediaries between the creators and the users of information, namely, those responsible for disseminating part of this output.
 
Our role has therefore been more passive, and our success assured by virtue of the fact that we have never, or very seldom, had to choose what was to be kept, because this was already fairly well controlled and determined further upstream by those who decided what would be published. We simply collected it.
 
Our success, our performance is often commensurate with our capacity to collect, as extensively as possible, not content, but the things in which content is conveyed.
 
Over time, we have even sometimes overlooked the importance of reflecting all forms of expression that help shape social discourse in order to devote ourselves more, and primarily to, the thing: the book, the manuscript, the portrait or the document, believing that the collection of items would reflect at any given time a society's forms of expression and, ultimately, its discourse about a given subject. Which leads some to believe that, through our collections, we are representative of the documentary output of our society.
 

Is this a myth?

The national digital library provides online access to digital documentary resources, anywhere, anytime. To access documents, users go through third-party platforms, usually owned by commercial computer service providers. As a result, access is not always free, because there are costs associated with the use of computer systems, Internet access and Web browsing.
 
More importantly, the organization of information is user-based, and the information is often user-generated.
 
Here, the ideology of the book no longer holds sway, since the very nature of the reader has changed significantly. Rather than reading a text that presents a detailed argument, users read short articles containing many hyperlinks.
 
Also, literacy no longer means the command of predetermined criteria measures, but rather the ability to search documentary resources in their multiple forms.
 
My third question concerns access and transparency in this new environment. In addition to the social agents that we are familiar with, such as government departments and political agents of society, many other agents from the private and non-governmental sectors generate information.
 
These agents play an increasingly important role and produce content vital to the functioning of our societies and of democracy. Unlike predigital times, today these agents have as many means of producing content as do the other agents of society.
 
If the citizenry has always been dependent on the governing authority for access to information, how can we ensure that the citizenry has access to information today, in a world in which the governing authority has been replaced by governance, that is, by the participation of a host of stakeholders other than the conventional agents of government?
 

How can this information be made accessible?

The three issues I have just outlined: acquisition, organization of loci, and access, are only a few of the challenges that lie ahead.
 
In closing, I would like to stress the importance of more closely studying, in the not-too-distant future, how we have gone from clay to computer chips, in light of what we have learned by reviewing the transition from the spoken to the written word. I believe this marks a return to fundamental analyses that could better inform our digital future and the complex and dynamic convergence of humanity and technology.
 
Thank you. I would be pleased to answer any questions or hear any comments you might have.

 

 

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