The Work of Writing in the Age of its Digital Reproducibility — Computers and Writing 2009

Bill Cope, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Began by noting the strangeness of talking to an audience about social media, while also seeing faces lit by computer screens suggesting multi-tasking.
Referenced new translation of Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (note the shift in the more familiar title).
His talk will explore the peculiar affordances of the digital.

Purportedly new — the concept of the virtual, as if virtual worlds are
anything new. From the moment of writing, we have created technologies
of telepresence. Purportedly new — hypertextual non-linearity.

moments in modern textuality.  Alphabetical movable type 1450 — the
invention of modern manufacturing techniques.  Nothing textual of
interest happened until 1500.  By 1500,. 9 million books had been
printed.  Revolutionary invention of all is the page number (indexes,
contents, references — all mechanisms designed for nonlinear
readings).  Interextual, intratextual, and cultural orders.  (Hypertext
is just a marginally faster technology for linking text.)

Ramus, 1515-1572 — a textbook publisher. An original method —
building methodically structured texts around learnable fragments.
(Walter Ong’s Decay of Dialog.)

What could be new in New Media?

New Media: Agency, DIffernces, Multimodality, Navigation.
New Learning: Design, Productive Diverfsity, Synaesthesia, Reflexive Pedagogy.

printed encyclopedia had a cultural aura; an encyclopedia on CD is not
that different, but a multilingual Wikipedia is fundamentally new.

Theroy McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory book. Showed delicious as a
bibliograhy, YouTube as television, an obscure video gets 11 views but
those are 11 significant views; FPS is a narrative (profoundly
different from a novel or cinematic experience) — the difference in
every case is agency.

We used to live in a world with tidy
distinctions between actor/aucience, writer/reader.  (What an
anachronism, says Cope, to test reading comprehenson as a proxy for
assessing literacy.)

Shift in postFordist workpaces, we want products that are flexibly adaptable by the customer, on the fly.

Apocalyptic sense that one day we will realize they are so utterly
behind that they will collapse… sent crazy by the ineptness of those

Used to live in a world of mass media, we could
come to school and talk about the same things the next day. One or two
local newspapers. Creates enormous openings for agency, by the new
realm of consumption and work.  Difference becomes an issue. Cateogries
defeat their purpose when there are so many categories … introduced
first-order and second-order differences. (He went quickly through that
— I haven’t done it justice here.)  New dynamics of differencde; not
just difference but divergence — the active process of becoming more
different, due to the autonomy of agency.  Economies of small cultural
scale… polyglossia. Language diversity is being preserved via
Wikipedia. (You can construct a character for a sound that only exists
in one language, and that character appears in Wikipedia.)

funny thing happened after Gutenberg… modular manufactuer unit moved
from the character to the pixel — revolutionary in that you can put
image and text easily together. (Old books used to have a separate
section of photo plates because the technology for printing images and
text was very different.)

Kress — the shift from word culture
to image culture. (Invoked Protestants smashing stained glass icons
because of their relationship to contoversial words.) 

Cope says he does not think we are moving away from the word.

shift from word culture to image culture — photolithography, offset
printing technology. The shift happened 50-70 years ago.

Are we
writing or are we talking?  Linguistically, an e-mail and microblogging
is the grammar of speaking.  “The visual is becoming wordier.” 
Architects refer to the grammar of a builidng being readable from the

In airports and shopping centers, we see more words
than ever before.  News channels have heaps of writing (partially an
affordance issue, since writing is easy to get into video now).

New kinds of navigational strategies.  Disentangle from the navigation
that is intrinsic to written text from the 1500s. 

When was text first digitized?  When was the first mass application of digital text?

My answer — morse code?  Telegraph?

Cope’s answer — Phototypesetting. (I used something very similar as an undergraduate!)

Markup Language — imortant textual moment, became SGML.    Notes that
CSS separates structure from form, in order to allow for variability of
rendering. Radical abandonment of typographical markup.

botched this in HTML, so the history of HTML since then involves
undoing that bungle.  We are in the digital incunabula — (print
incunabula was the print period before printing was stabilized.)

PDFs or Google algorythm that searches random words; not the chaotic
world of uploading random files.  All these are legacies of the
typographic world.

I’d love to get ahold of his slide on new types of text work — he only flashed it on the screen. (Tantalizing! Frustrating!)

need to know design principles to get around, metacognition, producing
new cognitive orders (which he barely flashed on the screen).

feel like I’m watching an advertisement for forthcoming work rather
than seeing a coherent speech, but the subject matter is intriguing.

Design is a form of action, atransformation.  YOu start with available designs, you design, you end up with the re-designed.

Walked us through a four-part slide on things you do to know… went by quite quickly

How to move from one-size-fits-all education.  Fundamentally different classroom,.

Synaesthesia matches with the intrinsic multimodality with new media.  In school, we are forced in a mold of writing “correct” letters, when in fact when we start we are more creative in what we communicate (showed child’s freehand design of circles which, to the child, represented a car). Multimodality is a path to lieracy, since learners who are good in one area can follow a path to learning how to do things in other ways.

Didactic – Mimetic
Authentic – Syntehtic
Transformative – Reflexive


  • New Learning
  • Ubiquitous Learning

Mentioned an upcoming conference in December.

CGLearner “Learning by Design”

The Assess-As-You-Go Writing Assistant. (Does everything that George Bush would have wanted, and does it much better.)  Tries to end the distinction between formative and summative assessment.