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Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age

Author: David M. Levy
Publisher: New York: Arcade Books, 2001
Review Published: August 2004

 REVIEW 1: Meghan Dougherty
 REVIEW 2: Adrienne Massanari

This book is a church. Open this book, and hear stories, not from a preacher, but from a reverent caretaker. All who enter here are granted temporary asylum from their To Do lists, their overstuffed inboxes, and the suffocating thought of official forms. Through his many seemingly benign tales of cash register receipts, childhood notes, and IRS battles, David Levy conveys a special reverence for all things printed, and all things written; each is a work of art. His tales are told in seemingly hushed tones, and the reader can't help but note the wonder in the author himself, as if he still were so touched by the wonder these simple tales inspire. At times, it seems that his heart is with the tangible paper forms of these communiqués, but he is, almost unwillingly, able to admit his love for the digital, adaptable, and what he calls the "fluid" forms of these objects. He defines the sprawling boundaries of documents, and takes his readers on a pleasant stroll through a collection of samples he holds dear. He passes by oft-quoted alarmist notions of lost written arts with care, explaining the repercussions of alarm, and a more acceptable reality of the evolution of technology.

Through this beautiful meditation, Levy traverses several kinds of documents, digital and analog, and urges his readers to tie these documents to the larger cultural, political, and economic world in which they exist -- to assign them an importance that we may not normally be willing to allow. Beginning with a document so mundane as a cash register receipt, Levy covers documents of all kinds -- greeting cards, tax forms, childhood notes -- and places them into a context in which they seems entirely necessary, lest the world fall into utter disarray. Partly historiography, partly cultural criticism, partly whimsical reflection, Levy haphazardly traces the evolution of documents, and documentation, sometimes reaching back as far as ancient times up through the near future. He lays out the questions advancing technology poses: Will paper disappear? Will we forget the intricacies of written language? Will an unlimited ability to create administrative documents come to control us? Will digital documentation destroy our need or desire for tangible books? Each chapter attends to the threats digital technology is feared to pose to documented information and the services they provide us -- organization and authority, consistency, letters, books, reading and writing, and finally libraries and education.

Levy's world is one where a 1997 cash register receipt can tell a story not only about a tuna sandwich, but also the first use of decimal notation and the etymology of punctuation. He sets this receipt in space and time, ascribing to it a weight that challenges the readers' everyday sensibilities. He describes the receipt's cultural role of documentarian of myriad transactions. He explains that this receipt also challenges notions of literacy. It assumes that readers of the receipt can understand the meaning of the information printed on it, which explains that it is a record of a financial transaction. The receipt also implicates entire industries in the presentation of its information -- the Federal Reserve, cash register manufacturers, graphic designers, shopkeepers, bread bakers, tuna canners, etc. And although, as Levy explains, the content the receipt presents is "less outwardly noble" than other more "artistic" documents, it performs the same duty of preservation. With this lighthearted, yet poignant description of such a seemingly inconsequential item as a receipt, Levy places historical, structural, and cultural weight on the shoulders of documents.

By chapter two, Levy has prepared his readers to move on to question the whole genre of documents. He asks, "What are documents?" Levy encourages his readers to consider documents outside of their dictionary definitions. Levy stresses the point that the definition of a document not only lies in its form and function (although those features certainly do add to our understanding of a given document and how to get information from it), but also in the ecology within which the document was created, exists, and is read. He reminds his readers of his receipt, which in its efforts to preserve and translate information about a transaction, relies on entire industries of buying, selling, and manufacturing in order to translate its message. He asks his readers to make a switch from defining documents not by their form, but by their function. Levy defines documents as those things that are delegated the work of speaking for us, be that in the form of the written word on paper, paint on canvas, emulsion on film, or ones and zeros on a disc. One function that appears to be a requirement for a document to be a document is that its information is repeatable and reliable, despite the instability of digital documents that can be easily manipulated.

In chapter three, Levy asks his readers to consider various versions of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He takes a shallow dive into the ecology of mediated messages, hinting that, although his many versions of Leaves of Grass -- different print editions and an online version -- have substantial textual differences, reading the work in different forms changes the meanings of the content. Each version has its benefits and drawbacks, and each version can reliably repeat its own version of the information it was created to transmit. Taken together, a reader can potentially develop a much richer version of the information. He uses this example to justify the "fluidity" of documents. To perform their duties, they must be reliably repeatable, but they also can hold -- no matter how fluid or static the medium -- a great ability to document change and its significance.

Levy turns to larger systems of information management and the role documents play in maintaining organization. He provides several examples of bureaucracy gone awry. He seemingly scoffs at the need for paperwork, and our desire to over-document some of the simplest actions. However, he admits the necessity of the organization and categorization that documents -- to-do lists, grocery lists, tax forms, repair requests -- can serve. He seems to lay out for his readers his internal struggle between the reverence he pays documents and the utter order reaped from their duties, and the disdain he holds for documents and their unique ability to hold fast procedures that will not bend to the fluidity of humanity. Levy subtly points out an irony of the digital age. After describing automated telephone menu systems replacing customer service representatives, Web-based tax filing, and online bill paying, he asks if computer will "at least" free us from paperwork. He claims that yes, the digital age may free us from paperwork, but the digital age has also made possible the easy proliferation of digital "paperwork." He urges his readers to disentangle the medium of paperwork from the mode of bureaucracy. Paperwork may be the bane of some people's existence, but ultimately it is not the paperwork, although daunting, that is the problem. The digital age, having freed us of paperwork, has increased our ability to administrate.

In chapter five, Levy addresses the commonly cited threat the computer and its communicative abilities pose to other forms of communication -- specifically, the threat email poses to letter writing. Levy outlines the many forms letter writing has taken over the years, from long reflective letters to greetings cards, calling cards with seasonal greetings, and postcards. Although he hints at the absurdity of the disappearance of hand-written letters in the face of the ever-efficient email, he does spend a great deal of time revering the handled, written, personal card that carries with it from sender to receiver a very real personal touch of both parties that email cannot convey. He presents the digital world of interpersonal documents as an opportunity. Clearly these advantages are not in the tangible sense of a greeting card, but Levy discusses the speed and new communicative behaviors that have hatched with this new medium. With more options, he reminds us, comes more choices. We must choose not only what messages to send, but the most appropriate way to send them. He claims that the answer to the questionable future of the hand-written letter lies in our lifestyle changes, and how we choose to incorporate new media into our culture.

Next, Levy explores how we consume the information in these forms of documents. How do we read books? How is this different from the information-gathering we do in digital documents? He covers the histories of reading, from monastic spoken reading to the silent, solitary act of reading we know today. He compares the experience one has while silently reading a book to the experience one has while manipulating digital documents and navigates through the morass of digital information that exists in this digital age. And of what is to come of the book and the ebook? Levy leaves his readers with a list of questions, but offers this: books and ebooks both have a place in culture. He continues his mediation of threats posed by technology with the threat digital documentation poses to libraries. He reflects on the meaning of collections and digital collections, libraries and digital libraries. He questions the need for "brick and mortar libraries" when confronted with digital collections. Yet he still highlights the importance of having access to each type; each type of collection is important when one considers the experience of using a brick and mortar collection versus a digital collection.

Levy changes course in chapter eight from the experiences of different document types to discuss the function of digital documents. As he writes earlier, the primary function of documents in culture is to speak for us, to convey some message reliably. He spends a significant amount of paper discussing just how digital documents convey messages. He marvels over their ability to do so reliably but in a medium that is not perceivable to the human senses: "you can't see the bits. You can't see them, you can't touch them, you can't smell them" (138). He goes on to describe the evolution of electronic and digital communication at a distance, and how these "inaccessible" signals have been stored and re-embodied into forms we can access through translation and copying. In this way, he sees digital documents, to an extent, as "generators." He reminds his readers here of the context in which documents are produced. The cash register receipt tells a story not only of a financial transaction involving a tuna sandwich, but it also tells a story of paper manufacturing, cash register manufacturing, etc. Once an event is documented -- in the form of a book, an office memo, or other tangible form -- he suggests that that tangible document largely severs its ties with its mode of production. The book, although a reminder of the bindery, does not need to be bound every time a reader would like to open it. However, digital documents, upon each opening, need to be reconstructed from ones and zeros that command place holders that are the content of the document. The mode of manufacture is always active in the world of digital documents, regardless of how invisible that action may be. Digital documents need a complicated system of hardware and software not only to create but to maintain presence and usefulness. He compares this to other mediated documents -- film, audio recordings, etc. And with this discussion of context and history, Levy discusses preservation. The considerations involved in preserving paper and other documents are similar to the considerations involved in preserving digital documents. The additional consideration here is that preservation of digital documents is tied up with the production of digital documents, or what Levy calls the "technical environment" surrounding the document.

Levy explains in chapter nine that it is these contexts and environments that allow us to recognize documents and their uses. We use these environments to create genres into which we can categorize documents to account for their usefulness. He also discusses the cultural changes -- focusing in these closing chapters on personal correspondence and scholarly publication -- digital documents cultivate with the increasing accessibility of digital documentation.

In his closing chapters, Levy reflects again on the place documents have in our world. He claims that "documents -- all of them -- address the great existential questions of human life" (184). We look for answers in our documentation, and to an extent, whether from the Bible, or a deli receipt, these documents provide us with some portion of a stable, ordered world upon which we can write our own answers. Still, these documents and their changing forms engender a fear inspired by questions that Levy introduced the book with: Will books disappear with the advent of a universal digital library? Will personal written letters disappear as people take to email? Will we stop using paper? The reader leaves the book with these questions left unanswered, but somehow they appear less alarming. Rather than having gained solid answers, Levy's readers have gained an understanding of the profound space in the world for documents and their functions.

Ultimately, Levy asks his readers to think with him, to meditate on the impressions people leave on surfaces in our daily activities. Evidence of past transactions, past and current states of affairs is left printed on paper, exposed on film, and etched into copper. From the most mundane to the most profound, people leave records of their activities, preferences, and behaviors. The marks we make and the impressions we leave are signifiers of our presence, and not only preserve meaning, but gain meaning when coupled with the object upon which we mark [1]. These impressions retell our stories to their viewers. Levy challenges his readers to consider the surfaces upon which we leave impressions -- our papers, our computers -- all are documents of our existence, and each new medium expands our creative notions of documentation. He is certainly not a bibliophile, nor a technocrat. Levy steers clear of these extremes, and sees the places where these worlds cross to make small steps in cultural change.

1. See Sarah L. Barsness, Accumulations. Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute. October 5-11, 2003.

Meghan Dougherty:
Meghan Dougherty is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research interests are in the histories of communication technologies, and the alternative policy-making procedures, economic influences, and ethical influences that guide those technologies.  <mdocx1@u.washington.edu>

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