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The Last Word: Dr. Jo Van Arkel

If you go on YouTube you can find a video of Hugh Jackman (a.k.a. Wolverine) in a white tux high kicking with a Rockette and singing the song “Everything Old is New Again.”  Some 100,000 people have already viewed it before you.  I know because I searched for the originator of the phrase “Everything old is new again,” and came across said video plus references to similar phrases that have been uttered through the centuries—all the way back to King Solomon who declared, after an exhaustive, life long search for the meaning of life—“There is nothing new under the sun.”

Right now, because the impact of technology is so vast, things feel very new.  Technology is restructuring our working lives, our communities, our sense of privacy—even our experience of time.  This revolution has called into question our most basic assumptions about what is permanent.

Take books, for instance.  Now, information is being stored less in books and more in a cloud.  Some universities are moving away from the word “library” altogether—choosing instead to create an Intellectual Commons.

“But,” my students say, “I love my books!”  Many of them come to my writing classes because they dream of writing a book.  I believe they will.  I just can’t tell them with much certainty what their books will look or feel like.

They tell me about how it feels to hold a book, thumb through the pages and wonder at the world contained within.  I remind them that once, the book was its own revolutionary technology, as magical as our smart phones are now—and before that it was the pencil and paper and before that—the alphabet which transformed us from storytellers to scribes.

Did you view the Hugh Jackman video on YouTube?  If you did, let me invite you to view another one.  If you search YouTube for “letterpress” you will discover several videos that mark a revival in letterpress printing.  Letterpress is the printing technology Gutenberg developed in 1450. It remained a primary printing format for six centuries.  Letterpress will never again be what it was in terms of mass production, but something about it still attracts those who love words on a page.  One video is A Short Letterpress Documentary (Wonderful) which outpaces Hugh Jackman by several thousand views.  But I am actually thinking of another one with a more modest viewership and a memorable message:  Letterpress in the Modern Age.  Artisans in this video speak of hands-on knowledge, of problem solving with one’s hands and getting a feel for your work.  They speak of the human element in creating a product that includes flaws that make it unique.

New technologies that restructure our ways of being and knowing (smart phones, Google, Twitter) cause us to simultaneously hold on to values we know are worth bringing forward into the future.  I believe that amidst all these changes, humans will still seek face-to-face, hands-on engagement.  We will remain tactile beings who still learn much of what we know by what we see and touch and gather through our senses.  We will remain narrative beings—composing each day as it comes and closes with a narrator’s sense of beginning, middle and end.


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