Monday, November 7, 2011

What the Dickens?

As we approach the bicentenary of Dickens' birth on February 7th, 2012, it's interesting to look back on what he had to say about his world at a time, in the mid-nineteenth century, when technologies were moving as fast as they are moving today. Inventions were being brought to the public's attention at a tremendous rate, and most involved rapid reproduction, cheaper prices for texts, and increased accessibility to 'knowledge', loosely put. Dickens contributed a good deal to the culture of his era, to contemporary debates about literacy, and he showed great initiative in producing novel forms for the dissemination of text. As the 'conductor' of his periodical, Household Words, which cost 2d (2 pence), he had a large audience of appreciative readers. And to these readers, he introduced his own potted history of text technologies, in his article on 'The Birth and Parentage of Letters', an essay that illustrates a keen understanding of the significance of tools and substrates throughout the centuries:

As Dickens so poignantly points out on the first page, 'Our paper and ink are materials so perfectly adapted for their purpose, that it is difficult to imagine in what way they can be substantially bettered by inventors that shall be hereafter'. Well said, Mr Dickens. One can only imagine, though, how he would have embraced the potential of our brave new digital world.

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