Marginalia #1

Technology differs greatly from the common American societal viewpoint. It is not simply about personal computers in the home of every person, or touch screen interfaces, or even cloth that will make the wearer nearly invisible. Rather, technology is that which can be put to practical use. Often the practicality is extended to suggest an ease of use or a simplification of the task that the technology addresses.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as

> 1. a. A discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts.

> b. transf. Practical arts collectively.

> c. With a and pl. A particular practical or industrial art.

> d. high-technology applied attrib. to a firm, industry, etc., that produces or utilizes highly advanced and specialized technology, or to the products of such a firm. (OED, 2008)

Given this general definition, it is easy to see how many modern objects and practices can fall under the umbrella of technology. The Oxford English Dictionary supplies several additional definition including

> 4. Special Combs.: technology assessment, the assessment of the effects on society of new technology; technology transfer, the transfer of new technology or advanced technological information from the developed to the less developed countries of the world. (OED, 2008)

This definition more closely mimics the Western society view that First World countries develop technologies which are then passed along to Third World countries, thereby creating a ‘civilized culture’ and a technological society, but how can we in America be sure that the inclusion of technology in a society is going to stimulate economic growth? Has it always occurred historically? Does technology solve more problems than it creates?

While reading an article by Michael Lopp this past week, it struck me that the very topic was a piece of technology that has exists for thousands of years — paper. Notebooks to be exact, but the important part of the notebook is the writing paper itself. This technology has created countless other technologies, all based upon it. The essay which you hold in your hands is a testament to the long life and influence of the lowly technology of paper.

So what does paper have to do with becoming a First World country? It doesn’t have anything to do with leaving the ranks of the Third World. It does impact our world, however. Michael writes, “I don’t need lines on a notebook. I needed lines in 3rd grade when I was learning how to write. I’m good now, thanks” (Lopp, 2008). While the lack of lines may be acceptable to Michael, not all of us are capable of writing clean straight lines without some assistance. It is that assistance in the form of ruled notebooks that teach us the valuable skill of written language in the first place.

Should we allow typing and computer technology to replace the written word at earlier ages than in the past? Does the technology allow for greater language skill development, or does it hinder our learning and cause us to regress? Are typed ‘languages’ such as text messaging their own technology or are they destructive to the understanding of the form and structure of proper language?

These questions, the last in particular, assume that text messaging is not a proper language, but they neglect another issue — portability. Michael also writes, “During college, I spent two years drunkenly plunking down my thoughts on the computer, but I gradually moved back to the handwritten word since, well, notebook computers weren’t there yet and I wanted to write wherever I damn well pleased” (Lopp, 2008). Now that technology has caught up in terms of portability, are personal data assistants, cellular telephones, and notebook computers a suitable technological replacement to pen and paper?

I agree with Michael that a notebook should be transparent to the writer. It is this transparency that gives the most beneficial use of the technology since, as mentioned above, technology should be leveraged to make life easier. A notebook “wastes none of your time because any moment you spend noticing the notebook is a moment you could be noticing something else, and writing about it” (Lopp, 2008).

The philosopher, Seneca, it would seem also agrees with this sentiment.

> Finally, it is generally agreed that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is pre-occupied — not rhetoric or liberal studies — since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man, yet there is nothing which is harder to learn (Seneca, pp. 9-10).

There is a trend within the information technology world for users to use a method known as ‘Getting Things Done’ based upon a book of the same title written by David Allen. The prime purpose of his system is to allow those of us entrenched in an increasingly technology based society to get organized and take control of what we need to do. The problem is that his method is an entire book of its own and the implementation of the system is quite complex. That complexity combined with the micromanagement of our daily affairs ends up causing users of the system to be pre-occupied with checking items off of a list rather than with actually living life.

Not only that, but software developers have attempted to capitalize upon the popularity of the system by creating programs which will assist with implementing the system for users, thereby, in theory, making their lives even easier. The problem with the software based solutions, aside from the glut of options which have invariably led some people to test out each new program and never actually get to implementing a usable system, is that they tie the user to another piece of technology — the computer.

I have found the most successful implementation of the ‘Getting Things Done’ system to be pen and paper. Not only is it universal, but it does not require power or an Internet connection. It is an interface that is understood by almost everyone in the world. It leads to good penmanship which allows the information to be accessible to anyone with an understanding of written languages (or a good translator). Best of all, paper can be referred to at any point in time and reviewed at leisure. It comes in standard sizes. It is interoperable with many different pens and pencils. It can also be stacked with other papers that are written in other languages.

So why do we strive to remove paper from the technological society? Are we going to save the environment? Do we not generate more paper through the use of computers since it is far easier to waste? I believe that a large portion of the drive for more modern technology replacing perfectly acceptable ‘antiquated’ technologies is the need for better propaganda. I use the term in reference to Jacques Ellul’s book, Propaganda. “[I]t takes an individual to read the newspaper and buy a radio or TV set — an individual with a certain standard of living. Modern integration propaganda cannot affect individuals who live on the fringes of our civilization or have too low a standard of living” (Ellul, p. 105).

Do capitalist societies and economies want to ‘civilize’ Third World countries to create a better standard of living for people as a betterment to the world, or do they ultimately see the use of technology as a means to the end of driving more consumerism and creating a larger customer base for their products and services? We need to re-examine the technology we have available to us and reconsider what we use as a part of our daily lives. Sometimes simplification and the use of older technology can open us up to a better quality of life and a higher standard of living despite what popular perception would have us believe.


  • Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House.
  • Lopp, M. (2008). Sweet Decay. Rands In Repose. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from
  • Seneca (trans. C.D.N. Costa). (1997). On the shortness of life. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Technology. (2008). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from