Electronic Ink and Online “Presence”

The second coming of the cloud of unknowing?
The second coming of the cloud of unknowing?

It has often been said that people are rather too fond of using the word “revolution”. Literally, it simply means the turning of a wheel. The degree to which the term gets ascribed and then “un-scribed” to various social developments may indicate that the wheel metaphor is still the most appropriate literary usage of the term.

In popular debates about the Internet it is often suggested that a “revolution” is at work. This is sometimes associated with the idea of “connected” or “disconnected” societies (a.k.a. “tribes”). It is also sometimes associated with the phenomenon of cloud storage of data; a process recently documented in an RTE show called “Cloud Control: who controls your data?” In academic debates about the Internet it is more common for people to refer to the idea of “a revolution in print”; namely, the reinvention, or revitalisation, of the printing trade in previously unimagined ways that has occurred in recent times.

Consider the cost of printing any publication, from a book or a magazine you admire to the glossy junk mail that comes through your letterbox. This involves the cost of not only just a single copy but also literally thousands, or in some cases millions, of copies that have not only to be printed but also to be distributed, marketed and “consumed”. Then consider how easy it is to “create a web page” without any printing or distribution costs whatsoever. That is a truly remarkable development and an illustration of how change in technology can have a knock-on affect on the purely human dynamic of how people can communicate. Is this not a revolutionary change?

While the business phenomenon of “big data” compiled from social media has acquired a lot of news coverage of late (the idea of “digital footprints”), less attention has been given to the phenomenon of “electronic ink”. This goes beyond the mere possibility of creating digital texts (e.g. with a word processor). It also involves the question of publishing and the availability of new text-reading technologies such as ebook software (whose usability, or readability, is not dependent on the backlit screens of the traditional computer monitor). The world of “electronic ink” has not only changed the media of publishing but it has also changed the possibilities of publishing. The social impact that this has had on society is a question that may have as far reaching consequences as had the development of the trade of journalism through the creation of cheaper means of printing and the propagation of newspapers in the nineteenth century. In itself, this development may conjure up a fascinating picture.

In popular fictional movies, a familiar stereotype since days of Humphrey Bogart is the picture of the world-weary private eye, or even “spy”, who witnesses the ugly side of life to the nth degree and, yet, just might be able to survive this ordeal with his or her wits, or health (mental or physical), intact. This is akin to the shady world of “film noir”. In the age of the arrival of the journalist over a half-century earlier, a similar stereotype existed regarding the world of the journalist: the world-weary “pen for hire” who occupies a dubious place between the world of barroom gossip and the courthouse and just might survive this ordeal alive long enough to tell the tale. Like the lowly civil servant heroes in the central or eastern European fictions of Kafka or Dostoyevsky, these pens-for-hire were often very well educated people who were burdened by a sense of low pay, lack of opportunities and under-appreciated talents, but just like the author of a novel, they were prepared to “expose” their inner state of mind in print, even if this did not necessarily occur without a price.

Can we make a similar comparison with individuals today who decide to publish their thoughts, come what may, online? What is the meaning of having an “online presence”? A recent survey found that 40% of twenty-year old Americans thought that they had “a good life online”. This is a piece of statistical data. Is it factually correct? In the light of the fact that nobody can breathe online and, therefore, nobody can be said to be alive online, one must certainly say that it is literally incorrect. Those youths who answered this survey in the positive were evidently testifying to the fact that they are used to communicating online. If this was not done over the phone line (a technology that has been with us since the 1870s), it was evidently done in print (a technology that has been with us for about 3,000 years).

Why is an online form of communication equated in people’s minds with a living presence? Consider any piece of text. If you had a book volume of the complete works of William Shakespeare in your hands, you do not possess the thoughts, feelings or actualities of whatever William Shakespeare’s life was over 500 years ago: you have only a reproduction of those of his momentary thoughts that he decided to put in print and know nothing more of his life. The same is true if you possess the text of a newspaper article by a journalist or indeed the text of some author’s Internet blog. One cannot breathe through a printed text any more than one can breathe online. You could try, but you’d find in a matter of seconds that it is simply not possible. So when people speak of “existing online” they are literally referring to having “printed [text] online”. This may have been something as simple as a single “tweet” or a comment on youtube.

How many writings have been committed to print by authors who decided afterwards that it was not really worth writing in the first place? It is impossible to tell, but it is quite probable that it is a very large number. Initially, journalists wrote in a purely anonymous manner. By-lines, in which the author’s name appears, are a more recent development. It is often suggested that the ultimate online edition of collective writing is Wikipedia; an encyclopaedic development that has been the subject of scholarly analysis in itself (such as “Wikipedia: community or social movement?”, Interface, November 2009). While Wikipedia can contact the contributors, its contents are published anonymously. I wonder, would it attract as many contributors if every article carried a by-line?

When people toy around with catchphrases that “the Internet has made the whole world urban” (by virtue of being linked through the written word) or “everyone is naked online” (both these catchphrases originated, I believe, with the New York Times), one must realise that these catchphrases are simply reflections of the mental impact that the process of writing can have on an individual. Writing may be (and more often than not is) simply the documenting of a momentary thought, but the moment it appears in print it is often interpreted by a reader as a direct insight into another’s state of mind due to the very fact of the potential permanence of print that can be re-read many times. There is a reason why “putting something in writing” is essential to legal practice. It is also a reason why most people instinctually avoid writing (who likes to have their own words thrown back at them at a later date?) and it is also partly why those who in the past chose to be a writer were often as guarded about the process as any would-be artist, for they know that what they produce is but one aspect of themselves and this should not (yet probably will) be interpreted by others as a reflection of their entire lives.

Having a (written) online presence is not, therefore, essentially any different than the process of being a published author in any age. Many are attracted to online publishing as a venting space in a similar manner to those who had their own printing press in the past (should they have feared that “All The King’s Men” would come crashing through their doors at any moment to smash up the printing press or toss all their printed flyers or pamphlets in the fire place?). Writing and reading (literacy) has often been typified as a instrument of indestructible power (“in the beginning, was the Word”) and it is arguably essential to the maintenance of effective human communication. So what is occurring through the “electronic ink revolution” is less the creation of new online “living spaces” than a very significant change in the culture of publication. It seems that the academic world was fairly quick to “tune in” to this reality and, indeed, interesting papers from a Europe-wide conference on the theme of “the changing cultures of publication” can be found at the following link:

Online Learning

Woman's hand holding a red phone
Woman’s hand holding a red phone

Does the availability of online learning tools encourage more collaborative approaches to education? Over a decade ago, articles within The Journal of Interactive Online Learning emphasised the value of using online tools to enhance teachers’ productivity and professional satisfaction, enabling them to have “a voice” beyond the classroom. More recently, students have been encouraged to use collaborative writing tools, such as Google Docs, to enable them to reflect, in the light of each other’s experience, on their potential roles as creators of knowledge, or portfolios, from the earliest stage of their studies.

It has been suggested that in creating such portfolios, individuals can organise their learning according to their own “Personal Learning Environment” based on the use of their personal choice of information-management tools. Furthermore, if an individual student becomes accustomed from the earliest stages of their studies to applying their learning to the idea to creating a portfolio, it can potentially show an employer that they have learned to apply their acquired skills and knowledge to different contexts, as well as to work within teams, far more so than a mere proof of qualification could ever do. From this premise, it has been suggested that the use of social-media tools (including customised “elgg” tools) may also become a basis for the educational process to become more “progressive” due to its receptivity to utilising any or all forums for educational purposes.

The value of collaboration is certainly not a new idea: the saying that “two heads are better than one” is as old as society itself. What is, perhaps, a new idea within this debate about online learning tools is the attempt to redefine what is the purpose of a “liberal arts education”. While this has connotations for all forms of educational institutions, it is a debate that is perhaps most related to the long-term educational debate (since universities were first created in medieval times) of “what is the idea of a university?”. On the surface, redefining the parameters of this debate in the light of contemporary society’s needs may seem to be only a positive development. A traditional argument regarding the value of a liberal arts education is that it is a process that enables an individual to fully develop their understanding of what it means to be human and, from this basis, acquire the skills necessary to later contribute as a free individual to the development and collective wisdom of adult society. This very notion of collective wisdom may seem to have connotations of religious precepts, or a preoccupation with the ideas of wisdom and discernment as moral concepts. To many contemporary eyes, however, this can seem to be too much of an “ivory tower” idea, as if education is a process designed to satisfy only the individual, not the community. And yet what is a community but a collection of free individuals?

What is the relationship between the collation of knowledge and collective wisdom? From a business perspective, the value in the collation of knowledge is the aggregation of data sets to enable more effective, or productive, business analysis tools. The “big data sets” generated from online social media exist to serve this purpose and this can only be a good thing, according to a business logic. But does this data embody human wisdom if it does not take account of the free agent that is the individual? Is the traditional “liberal arts education” idea still not the ultimate guarantor of individuals’ independence of thought, even if it be still conceived partly in the light of the traditional contrast between Greco-Roman (abstract logic) and Judeo-Christian (moral logic and wisdom) world views or traditions of thought?

Just as coexistence is an essential feature of life, there is no reason why different models of education can or should not also coexist. Online research tools and presentations can illustrate the past worlds of Greco-Roman and Byzantine civilisations just as much as the present, and they should also be able to highlight the common denominators of life in every age. If there is perhaps a naïve sense, or even fear, in some quarters that new forums for the dissemination of information can serve to dissolve meaning, this may be but the result of the sense that it is the business world rather than the humanitarian intellect that is setting the agenda for such developments. However, a flip side to this situation is that processes cannot be assessed fully until all results are produced.

It may be true that the business world has played an ever-growing role in the professionalisation of society ever since the nineteenth century. It may also be true that it is only in the present of ubiquitous online information that the results of this development are becoming evident to all. The forums for online learning may be considered as an illustration that the processes of business-analysis of information and humanist-enquiry, also based on information, are and essentially have always been co-existing and far more mutually beneficial than may be evident on first glance. The old saying that it is by the fruit that we can recognise the value of the endeavour has myriad connotations that can be as liberating for the mind in the present as in any age. The processes of mind mapping may simply have changed its outward form.