Evelyn Lemoine Reviews David Levy Book
Evelyn Lemoine, Vice President of People Programs for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce recently shared her enthusiasm for an intriguing new book Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, by David M. Levy, Professor of Information Sciences at the University of Washington.
What in the world do calligraphy quills and computers have in common? Both are tools – means of communicating written words. In Scrolling Forward, David M. Levy weaves an engagingly personal story about the history of documents. His concept of what constitutes a “document” is expansive. A student of calligraphy and a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, Levy takes the reader on a journey through time, examining the mundane trivialities and cosmic existentialities of human communication.
With an accessible style, Levy presents a thesis that documents are cultural artifacts. They comprise not only words on paper but also a variety of other forms (e.g., electronic media, films, photographs, drawings, paintings, maps – even nonverbal forms of expression). These documents have much to teach us.
“Meditation on a Receipt,” the first chapter, introduces a document – a simple cash register receipt – describes it, places it in historical context, examines its very essence, analyzes its constituent parts, and along the way intertwines its Latin, Greek and Chinese underpinnings, and Jewish law! What a masterpiece in 14 short pages!
The rest of the book is no less fascinating. Drawing on well known and obscure works that have been important to him, Levy traces the impacts that documents and the written word have had on society through time. He draws parallels about how technologies that preceded the computer were destined to “change the world.” He directly addresses one of the distinguishing characteristics of today’s electronic communications: their supposed ability to connect us in ways never before possible. Along with the ability to be connected, they bring an expectation that we will always be available. He writes, “…although promising to connect us, by contributing to the fragmentation of our lives, they also seem to disconnect us – from our tasks, our relationships, and even from ourselves.”
If you are interested in words, if you are interested in thinking, if you are interested in history, if you are interested in the capacity to connect…you’ll find much to keep you engaged in this fascinating study of where we’ve been and where we are headed in the digital age.