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Dissertation Defense

Tara Shankar:
"Speaking on the Record"

Wednesday, December 1, 2004, 1:00 PM EST

Bartos Theatre, MIT Media Lab (E15)

Seymour Papert
Professor Emeritus of Learning Research and Media Technology
Program in Media Arts and Sciences, MIT

Chris Schmandt
Senior Research Scientist
Program in Media Arts and Sciences, MIT

Mel H. King
Senior Lecturer Emeritus
Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT

Reading and writing have become the predominant way of acquiring and expressing intellect in Western culture. Somewhere along the way, the ability to write has become completely identified with intellectual power, creating a graphocentric myopia concerning the very nature and transfer of knowledge. One of the effects of graphocentrism is a conflation of concepts proper to knowledge in general with concepts specific to written expression. The words 'literate' and 'literacy' themselves are a simple case: their connotations sometimes focus on the process of reading text and sometimes on the kinds of knowledge that happen to be associated in our culture with people who read many books.

This thesis has a conceptual and an empirical component. On the conceptual side, a central task is to disengage certain concepts that have become conflated by defining new terms. Our vocabulary is insufficient to describe alternatives that serve some or all of the functions of writing and reading in a different modality. As a first step, Shankar introduces a new word to provide a counterpart to writing in a spoken modality: speak + write = sprite.

Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself. This thesis considers a particular (still primitive compared to what might come in the future) version of spriting in the form of two technology-supported representations of speech: (1) the speech in audible form, and (2) the speech in visible form. The product of spriting is a kind of "spoken" document, or talkument. As one reads a text, one may likewise aude a talkument. In contrast, Shankar uses the word writing for the manual activity of making marks, while text refers to the marks made.

Making these distinctions is a small step towards envisioning a deep change in the world that might go beyond graphocentrism and come to appreciate spriting as the first step—but just the first—towards developing ways of manipulating spoken language, exemplified by turning it into a permanent record, permitting editing, indexing, searching and more.

The empirical side of the thesis is confined to exploring implications of spriting in educational settings. Shankar studies one group of urban adults who are at elementary levels of reading and writing, and two groups of urban elementary school children who are of different ages, cultures, and socioeconomic status, and who have appropriated writing as a tool for thought and expression to greater or lesser extents. One effect of graphocentrism in our culture is the very limited and constrained developmental path of literacy and learning. This has not always been the case, and it does not need to be so in the future. This thesis discusses some small ways in which we might re-value modes of expression in education closer to oral language than to writing.

This thesis recognizes three ways in which spriting is relevant to education: (1) spriting can serve as a stepping stone to writing skills, (2) it can, in some circumstances, serve as a substitute for writing, and (3) it provides a window onto cognitive processes that are present but less apparent in the context of producing text.

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