By Dan Martin, T&T Student
When I see a filing cabinet, I no longer see a large metal object with bulky drawers. I see a textual innovation for organizing, storing, retrieving, and managing the literate activity that sustains the functionality of a professional workplace. The Texts and Technology (T&T) PhD program has taught me to see textuality as an intertextual network of innovations responsible for the progression and, at times, stagnation of human civilization, culture, and communication. Every textual invention comes attached to a preceding set of innovations and a complex social and political history for why and how humans created and implemented one technology over another. The T&T program provides students with a comprehensive historical and theoretical overview of the collaborative efforts between the multiple disciplines like art, writing and rhetoric, history, computer science, English, media, education, and philosophy that are responsible for making and refining the textual technologies that shape our culture. Graduates of the T&T program become new mediums for critical interpretation capable of examining the ontological and epistemological potential and uncertainty of all textual forms.
This interdisciplinary PhD program teaches students to analyze the impact that textual technologies have had on the growth and evolution of human activity over the past 5000 years. From the invention of clay tokens to record economic transactions in Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE (Schmandt-Besserat and Errard, 2008) to the invention of the internet in the 1980’s, and subsequently the world-wide-web in the 1990’s, humans have continually reconstructed and redefined their social and political structures according to the textual technologies they have created, adopted, excluded, and remediated for communication. These communication tools are the conceptual and foundational building blocks for constructing sophisticated economic, militaristic, and political structures. The T&T program emphasizes the value of identifying and contexualizing the rhetorical narratives that explain how and why certain textual technologies were privileged over others and to demonstrate the enormous collaborate efforts needed to develop these technologies.
Textual evolution is dependent on various innovations that are both abstract and material. Before the tangible, material computer was even possible its conception required a vast network of abstract textual technologies from alphabetizing the Dewey Decimal system so thinkers, researchers, and inventors could access knowledge to the physical and material libraries willing to apply such a system. Scientists, engineers, and artists began thinking about the computer’s various components in articles, drawings, and experiments in the early nineteenth century. Charles Babbage’s analytical engine was the first notion of the computer in the 1830’s. Vannevar Bush’s memex machine was another step forward towards digital computation in 1945, as was Ted Nelson’s XANADU project and its first mentioning of the term hypertext in the 1960’s. All textual technologies are combinations and extensions of previous technologies. One textual innovation is added to another to create something new.
Since the first signs of writing in Mesopotamia, humans have continued to synthesize thousands of textual inventions together into something new and more complex, like using letters and phonograms to build an alphabet—from which all alphabets ever made are derived. The Chinese invented the earliest forms of paper and xylography (the very first type of printing) from which all printing concepts derive (Schmandt-Besserat and Errard, 2008). By 900 CE Mesoamerica had designed over 13 writing systems and began recording calendric measurements (Gabriel, 2008). More and more writing spawned entirely new industries of technologies for capturing, mitigating, storing, and circulating that writing. Humans needed more effective and efficient surfaces to write on than just jade, stelae, or brick, and they spent the next several thousand years filling those needs until the mid 15th century. Even though humanity had come a long way from using a finger dipped in blood to write on sheepskin or a piece of shell, it was the invention of the printing industry that caused a massive paradigm shift, initiating another series of textual industries from binding to decorative engraving.
We would rely on the book to transform civilization, culture, and communication for the next 500 years. A cohesive combination of a multitude of textual technologies from the table of contents to the glossary, the book became a representation, a vehicle, for knowledge itself. Consider how placing texts into alphabetical order is a textual technology that alters and reshapes how we organize, access, and retrieve information. This organizational method dates back to the Greeks and Zenodotus, an Alexandrian librarian who started to organize textual objects according to their creator’s last name (Anderson, 2008). Without abstract concepts for textuality like indexing to serve as technologies for storing and retrieving texts, humans struggle to benefit from overwhelming amounts of written and printed information; in fact, flawed organizational and retrieval methods for information can destabilize knowledge and hinder human progress.
Chad Wellmon (2014) explains how the massive explosion of secular books in circulation in the mid 1700’s initiated a knowledge crisis we invented the modern research university to stabilize. The research university is a complex, multi-structured technology for making, stabilizing, and canonizing knowledge. It relies on textual technologies like the book to maintain an authority over the construction of knowledge. The T&T program teaches students how to see endnotes, side-notes, footnotes, paragraphs, citations, sections, titles, Wunderkamerrans, hachures, PDF’s, blogs, and video editing software as individual textual technologies, each with an individual history, that reconstruct how we generate, remix, organize, sequence, and access information, and that these technologies impose an order, an ontological and epistemological privileging of sorts, on to us. The histories for how and why textual technologies like the research university came to be expose how textual innovations impose this systematic way of ordering and accessing knowledge that is never neutral. Recalling these histories provides evidence and exigence for scholarship that promotes improving how we design, develop, implement, and utilize textual technologies.
Today digital mediums like the computer and phone are changing how we communicate, moving us away from linear, logocentric, paradigms for textual production, meaning-making, and knowledge formation and more towards what Greg Ulmer refers to as electracy. In a highly digital and multimedia culture, we tend to communicate with a combination of semiotic modes like image, sound, animation, and text—using a variety of mediums and frames like radio, video, TV, phone, and computer. Examining how we use these semiotic materials to reshape our communication tools and forms, and to mitigate our cultural and political existence, provides a larger purview of how textual technologies impact us.
For example, a dictionary is a textual technology invented to store, organize, and retrieve an increasing vocabulary. Samuel Johnson adding quotes to his dictionary in the 1700’s was a technological innovation that reshaped how we understand words and language. Quotes resituated our expectations of the dictionary’s structure and form. Textual conventions and structures like quotes alter and mold audience expectations, which in turn alters how we interpret those forms. Now we have online dictionaries that have remediated the characteristics of print dictionaries with modes like audio pronunciations and interactive maps for word origin, conventions that redefine and restructure this form and subsequently how we use a dictionary as a textual technology.
The narratives behind why we move from one style of printing to another, or from one user interface to another, is as much a product of technological innovation and evolution as it is a political and social power struggle between the competing scientists, media designers, investors, and governments that make, shape, regulate, and implement these textual innovations. Finding the stories behind how and why we developed papyrus, parchment, and paper to write on, or why we used a bird feather or eventually created the pencil to write with teaches us how to analyze and criticize the advantages and ramifications of textual technologies and to identify the power dynamics that lead to their formation and adoption. Graduates of the T&T program learn how to construct and use interdisciplinary theoretical research frames to examine how textual forces enact and situate social and political engagement. These interdisciplinary frames teach T&T students how to locate and critically interpret textual interdisciplinary and its impact on human progress.
Anderson, Jack. (2008). The collection and organization of written knowledge. In Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Charles Bazerman Ed. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis, pp. 177-190.
Gabriel, Brian. (2008). History of writing technologies. In Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Charles Bazerman Ed. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis, pp. 23-34.
Schmandt-Besserat and Micheal Erard. (2008). Origins and forms of writing. In Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Charles Bazerman Ed. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis, pp. 7-22.
Wellmon, Chad. (2014). Organizing the Enlightenment. Johns Hopkins Press.