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Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age Paperback – 26 May 2011

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What's up, doc? Information scientist David M Levy wants us to look at the documents that fill our lives, and his book Scrolling Forward is a thoughtful reflection on their near-omnipresence. Levy has the perfect resumé for this job--after getting his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1981, he moved to England to pursue the study of calligraphy and bookbinding. His love of books shows in his writing, which is rich with references and anecdotes from Walt Whitman to Woody Allen.

Drawing on examples as disparate as grocery store receipts, greeting cards, identity papers and (of course) e-mail, Levy finds the common threads binding them together and explores how and why we use them in daily life. He looks at digitisation closely, considering how speed, ease of editing, and potentially perfect copying changes our traditional considerations of documentation. Though he insists that he's looking at the present, not speculating about the future, it's hard to see how to avoid looking ahead after reading Scrolling Forward. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Intelligent, well-written and on point 25 May 2002
By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang - Published on
Format: Hardcover
...Our complicated relationship with documents--everything from Post-Its to encyclopedias--is the subject of David Levy's "Scrolling Forward."
Levy, a doctoral computer scientist and calligrapher, is well placed to compare the old and new. His book is organized around broad subjects--reading, writing and the like--but each chapter is a meditation, written more on the "this reminds me of that" principle, than according to something more formal. Such an approach can occasionally get out of control, but at its best the book's style effectively juxtaposes printed and electronic documents and calculates the gains and losses of moving information from one medium to the other.
The fact that Levy is interested in this question indicates a growing maturity in our attitudes toward digital materials. A decade ago, the first important works on hypertext and multimedia--George P. Landow's "Hypertext" and Jay David Bolter's "Writing Space"--declared that, thanks to the computer, the author was dead, the reader reigned supreme, the book was doomed and linear thinking was passe.
They were widely praised within academic circles and provoked defenders such as Sven Birkerts to assert the eternal value of the book. The debate that has followed has largely been beside the point, because it misses several things that Levy wisely considers in depth.
First, arguments over "the future of the book" focus on books, particularly high literature. But we live in a world saturated with texts: We might not read Dante every today, but we'll read street signs, scan newspapers, select from restaurant menus, answer e-mail, ignore ads, type URLs. To drive the point home, "Scrolling Forward" begins not with a discussion of encyclopedias or the Bible, but with a deli receipt. Even something so utterly inconsequential turns out to draw upon thousands of years of history and complex social institutions, not to mention a host of technologies.
"Over the centuries a complex network of institutions and practices has grown up to create and maintain meaningful and reliable paper documents," Levy argues. This is as true of receipts as it is of Rilke: "To be a receipt is to be connected to cash registers, sellers, buyers, products, expense reports, the IRS, and so on." It takes a village to make a document.
Levy's receipt was a hybrid, a printed record generated by an electronic system; therein lies a second big point. It turns out that documents have sloshed between electronic and printed form for decades. Checks and airline tickets were computer-printed from the 1950s. Mainframe computer publishing systems were developed in the 1960s and 1970s for newspapers and other high-volume publishers. In the 1980s, word processors allowed writers to create digital texts. In the 1990s, Web browsers gave readers direct access to digital works. This last and most-publicized step was a culmination, not a revolution. Seen in this light, the whole print versus digital debate seems irrelevant.
The fact that the debate over "the future of the book" took off in the last decade suggests that what's at stake isn't just materials but practices and cultural institutions. We pick up cues about the utility and reputability of printed sources from the publisher, the feel of the paper, even from a document's location in a library or bookstore; such cues have yet to be reproduced consistently online, and the social networks that add value to printed works weren't threatened by the computerization of typesetting and printing.
Documents, Levy argues, aren't just information; they're also material things and cultural artifacts. Even digital documents aren't "just" immaterial bits. As Levy notes, "the ones and zeros of our digital representations ... are embedded in a material substrate no less than are calligraphic letter forms on a piece of vellum." This is not to say that an electronic document can't have all the qualities of a printed one. It is to say, however, that those qualities can't be programmed as features in the next upgrade: They have to be created in the social world and in the world of human practices and attitudes. Levy wants us to recognize that books and journals are much more than containers from which content can now be "liberated." They have influenced-- often to the good--the way we read, organize our thoughts and create order in our intellectual worlds.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
What is a Document? 25 Jun 2006
By Michael K. Bergman - Published on
Format: Paperback
The first contribution of David Levy's book is to provide insight on what exactly IS a document. Like many common and prosaic words, the idea of what constitutes a document proves to be more than a little challenging. (Here are a couple of definitional challenges. On the one hand, an entire paper document can be reproduced as a single Web page or split into numerous parts and therefore many Web pages. Alternatively, an encyclopedia could be interpreted as a single document in one case, or each of its split-out articles as separate documents in their own right.)

Levy illustrates the real role of a document as an artifact of historical fixity by the case of the lowly sales receipt, dozens of which pepper our daily lives and go without notice. The paper receipt most often contains information on the amount, location, for what and time of the transaction, say for buying a deli sandwich. But through the Middle Ages and into the 1700s, witnesses (wit, to know) were required to vouch (act as a witness) that any economic transaction had indeed taken place. In other words, a simple and taken-for-granted paper document such as the sales receipt (or voucher) was a key enabler in oiling the wheels of commerce. A simple slip of paper replaces the hassle and expense of a physical witness.

Other documents, of course, enabled coordination of train schedules, ledger accounting and other economic benefits, plus, also of course, the spreading of ideas and knowledge, fiction and non-fiction. Levy tells similar stories regarding the emergence of greeting cards, post cards and the postal service.

Levy works best when he attempts to fulfill his stated aim of placing documents within their own cultural time and place. The story is thus anecdotal and diverse from Woody Allen's Annie Hall to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The result is this book is a surprisingly literal treatment given the author's doctoral background and then professorship in information science.

While attempts are made to relate this material to information and library science, indeed to the emergence of the digital age, the book ends up feeling fragmented and scattered, lacking an articulated thesis. For example, no mention whatsoever is made of Elizabeth Eisenstein's 1979 classic book, "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," which postulated the role of written documents in the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, among other historical epochs. The concluding chapters ramble from earthquakes to car advertising to "existential/religious perspectives." After a promising start, I felt like the air had been let out of the balloon by book's end.

I recommend this book to others mostly because of its episodic keen insights, though more of the mark could have been hit. Finally, I should note that any book with documents as its subject should take the time to include an index -- shame, shame.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Important Reading 14 Mar 2002
By Carl Lagoze - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an important book for everyone involved in the so-called "digital revolution" (which probably means all of us). David Levy tells us that as we look forward we must also pay close attention to the past. We must understand the meaning of documents independent of their fixity (or lack thereof) in the bits flowing across networks or ink on paper. Each chapter provides a thoroughly unique approach to helping you understand the cultural wrappings and the hidden implications of changes in the vehicle for fixity. The chapter about a deli receipt is especially magnificent! Read this book and think deeply about it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
has retained its value over the years 19 Jun 2006
By Jonathan Betz-Zall - Published on
Format: Paperback
Three years after publication, the march of technology has not made this book obsolete. Levy correctly identified the sore spots that technological change has rubbed on our sense of civilized society, and pointed out to what degree the problems were realized 100 years ago. Previous reviewers complained about pointlessness, but I appreciate Levy's many small points as well as his few large ones. However, I wouldn't buy a copy; this is the kind of book that public libraries are good for.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A fascinating survey of the future of documents 10 April 2002
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Scrolling Forward is a very fine survey of the changing relationships between ordinary objects - in this case, documents - and modern digital influences. Writing, etiquette, and reading habits are being questioned and changed by new technologies and practices: this examines documents of all kinds, considering what is likely to change and what is/should be preserved in the Internet Age. A fascinating survey of the future of documents and their meaning.
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