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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

How do documents speak to us? Beyond their words, how do they convey information and structure our existence in the here-and-now? What do they tell us about the collective values we share? These are just a few of the questions David Levy meditates upon in his recent book, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age.

In Levy's world, even the most humble deli receipt deserves careful scrutiny. In his first chapter, he uses this small scrap of paper to explore diverse topics such as the adoption of early writing surfaces (animal skins and vellum) and later introduction of paper into Medieval Europe to the development of the alphabet and numerals. More importantly, he ponders the way that this seemingly inconsequential receipt actually conveys a significant amount of information about both historical and contemporary notions of purchasing property. He suggests that the power of these types of documents comes in their ability to "stand in for," or represent individuals in an intricate transactional process.

Rather than offering an exact definition of what constitutes a document, in Chapter 2 Levy explores some of the historical, cultural, and social importance of these "talking things." He suggests that to create such a definition is contradictory; in Levy's mind, it is more important to understand what a document does, what functions it "performs," how it enables certain social process, and how it makes its way in the world. In so doing, he notes that like other artifacts, documents must be evaluated in light of the larger cultural container in which they sit. Levy writes, "no documents, no genre, is an island" (29). However, such examination is not an easy task, especially when we are often as easily controlled by that which we intend to control. By creating a mountain of documents to sustain our institutions and create a sense of order, we are actually relinquishing our control over them. We become subject to their "whims" -- there is no guarantee that the context under which a document is created will actually be evident to those that view it years later. This fear of being controlled by that which we create is common throughout literature, and Levy illustrates it with a short retelling of the Golem myth (which was later recreated by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein and Walt Disney in The Sorcerer's Apprentice).

Levy's exploration takes a turn in his third chapter, where he provides a personal account of his own experience with the world of documents. He examines Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and provides a well-researched analysis and exposition of the differences between the various editions of the text. The choice of Whitman is apropos; his language sings of the joy of exploring the world with fresh eyes -- much like Levy is encouraging us to do. In his discussion, Levy vividly describes the material features of his childhood copy of the text and contrasts it with the online version available through Bartleby.com. He concludes that both texts, his well-worn hard copy and the well-annotated Web version, offer different advantages that are entirely dependent on the reactions of "real readers in real situations" (53). Instead of viewing the relationships between book and Web site, offline and online, analog and digital as dichotomies, Levy implies that they are, instead, dialectics. They are important distinctions, but ones that should not keep us from enjoying both forms. No one medium will serve all readers all of the time.

In Chapter 4, Levy investigates the use of documents for administrative purposes, illustrating their potential to wreak havoc by recounting a scene in Terry Gilliam's Brazil in which the main character's immediate need to have his air conditioning fixed is undermined by bureaucratic red tape that requires numerous forms just to report the problem. He then traces the history of managerial practices in the US and the development of systematic management that emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Levy offers an exploration of the three primary technologies that enabled the dramatic shift from small businesses to large, multi-site corporations: the typewriter, carbon paper, and vertical files. As Levy notes, these technologies coevolved with the new management techniques and emerging document genres such as the memo -- each encouraged the development of the others.

In his fifth chapter, Levy returns to his own, personal exploration of documents. He starts by telling the story of a small scrap of paper on which his then three-year-old sister had written the word "DID" in response to an accusation that she had broken something of his father's -- this seemingly inconsequential document became a prized family possession, a testament to a young child's ability to understand the advantages of a written confession over a verbal one. As Levy notes,
    With the note, she was able to make a confession at a distance. It's as if, in the act of writing, she was separating out a part of herself -- impressing the confessing self into the paper -- and sending it off to do the work for her. Curiously, the scrap of paper was her and not her at the same time. Constructing it was both an act of vulnerability (a means of confessing to a misdeed and owning up to a lie) and an act of self-protection (hiding away). She was extending herself to her father -- literally creating something that would travel beyond the boundaries of her physical body -- and at the same time withdrawing from him. (80)
He continues by suggesting that his sister's one-word confession was a rudimentary letter, and traces this form's historical development and the contemporary genres that have arisen from it. Most of the chapter focuses on the greeting card, and Levy demonstrates how everything from the initial card we choose at the store to whether we enclose a handwritten note inside, conveys a very particular sense of who we are in relation to the recipient. He also notes that these documents, like other, more straightforward "letters," become keepsakes. Just as his father preserved and mounted the small scrap of paper his younger sister wrote, we often display greeting cards we have received, or create a special place for them in our closets. As Levy notes, "We may look at them rarely or not at all, yet still it is somehow comforting to know they are there. It's as if something of importance is embedded in their very substance. This has less to do with their information content per se than with the emotions they signify and embody" (97).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 consider the role of documents in the digital era. In Chapter 6, Levy presents a cogent summary of the major issues that bibliophiles and technophiles raise when discussing the advent of digital technologies and their effects on the book and how it may change what it means to be a "reader." Levy again cautions against arguing for the extremes in this debate, and instead offers the suggestion that we need to answer a fundamental question, "What is it we want to hold on to, and what is it we want to move toward?" (117). Chapter 7 discusses the very real way that libraries are struggling with the onslaught of changes that the digital era has wrought, and Levy historically contextualizes the traditional library practices created by Mevil Dewey in an effort to explain how the advent of digital technology is changing our collective understanding of what a library actually is. In Chapter 8, Levy draws on his own extensive experience as a Xerox PARC researcher and discusses the misconception that digital documents are somehow not real. He notes,
    Paper documents, we often hear said, are real: physical, material, weighty, tangible. Whereas digital documents by contrast are virtual: immaterial, weightless, and intangible. With such pronouncements, I think we are trying to get at something important about the new technology, but we haven't yet gotten it right. Digital documents are not immaterial . . . Both digital representations and written forms have both a material and a symbolic existence. (156)
Again, Levy adeptly discards our common, superficial understanding of what documents are, in favor of a much more complex and nuanced explanation of what they might mean to each of us.

In Chapter 9, Levy illustrates that documents are a part of what he calls, "an immense effort" -- they are the product of a complex collection of institutions and administrative practices that we rarely perceive or explore. He also notes the common practice of blending old genres to produce new ones. As an example, he discusses how e-mail employs many of the old genre conventions of memos and letters (through its use of to: and from: fields), and also offers entirely new features that present their own difficulties (for example, the conflicting conventions regarding the use of the CC: and BCC: fields).

Chapters 10 and 11 move Levy's work out of a strict discussion of documents and changing practices regarding their creation and use, to an exploration of the larger existential meaning that these items hold for our culture. He draws upon the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (who was, in turn, drawing upon the philosopher Kierkegaard) to promote the idea that our struggle with documents, their organization, and their meaning in our lives, mirrors a much larger struggle to deny our own mortality. Thus, our search for order in an un-ordered world (which may manifest itself in our collective need to define definitively what a document is) is actually an expression of our anxiety about our existence on earth. As Levy notes, in creating documents, we choose to create things that re-present ourselves; in an effort, he suggests, "to make ourselves real" (189). Each of us deals with this realization in our own way; some reify and latch on every new digital technology in the name of progress, while others eschew these modern forms in favor of the more authentic "book." We then engage in frantic discussions where we try to convince the others (the technophiles or the bibliophiles) that we are in the right. Levy believes that what we are actually struggling with goes much deeper. As he says,
    what I now see in much of the current hype is a response to our existential plight: the longing to be freed from the confines of our earthly (and therefore mortal) conditions and our lack, the hope that information and knowledge will ultimately set us free, and that our new technological circumstances will provide vehicles for achieving this. (200)
We attempt to order our worlds -- the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of documents, institutions, and complex interactions -- because on some fundamental level, we desire immortality.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the clear presence of Levy's voice throughout. He recounts several pivotal moments in his life that led to this research -- among others, a valedictory address he gave at his college during the 1970s that received some press and regained a different sort of meaning when it was presented by the media, and his extensive study of calligraphy after finishing his graduate program. Levy's experiences provide the foundation for the work in Scrolling Forward and, in keeping with the book's subject matter, link the personal to the academic.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to refrain from using words like "ritual," "sacred," "mythic," and "meditation" when discussing Levy's work. While written straightforwardly, the issues Levy raises, the examples he provides, and the language he uses to illustrate our relationship to documents, elevate this book from being merely prescriptive prose to a vividly descriptive meditation on the ways documents reflect the social web that ties us together. Remarkably, his meditative style remains extremely accessible. Levy manages to ponder some incredibly complex questions, such as "What is a document?" and "How do these artifacts reflect social and cultural aspects of our society?" in a way that is both enlightening and entertaining. This text would make an excellent addition to undergraduate or graduate courses in communication, textual studies, history of science, cultural studies, and computer science.

Adrienne Massanari:
Adrienne Massanari is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research interests include the cultural, historical, and legal discourse around "new" media.  <alm2@u.washington.edu>

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