“Welcome to the party, we’re all just papers in the wind.” From “Run, Run, Run,” by Jo Jo Gunne, 1972. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS7pOaEEOTs]
Several decades into the digital revolution, it is clear that digital devices have had an enormous impact upon the routines of literacy. This effect is every bit as profound as that brought about by the print revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moreover, the digital universe is arguably much broader than the universe of moveable type. After all, the latter, in simplistic terms, was only a superior way to deal with a medium—parchment/paper—that had been around for millennia. In both cases, the “revolution” involved enhancements in the production, dissemination, and storage of information. But power over information has always meant power plain and simple for the persons in charge of society.
With that in mind, let us consider that persons of rank have had, for more than a millennium, access to documents attesting to their property, status, or worth. Consider the Anglo Saxon concept of “bookland,” which involved royal land grants by means of charters or diplomas, deposited for safety among the records of a monastery or abbey. Moving forward to the early modern world, well-connected travelers regularly carried with them letters of introduction—the ancestors of the recommendations (paper or electronic) eagerly sought by today’s applicants for jobs or college admissions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the need for documentary endorsement had touched the lives of people who were in no sense exalted. For example, a slave in the American south was required to carry a pass signed by his master in order to set foot beyond the master’s property. Ironically, in the last stringent days of the Confederacy, southern white folks had to carry a stamped pass in order to take railroad journeys; such was the effect of wartime bureaucracy.
Soon after the turn of the last century, several forces came together in the United States—industrialization, immigration and population growth, urban planning and ever more far reaching bureaucracies—to produce a society whose members were defined, increasingly, by their paper documents. A standardized system of birth certificates was in place in the United States by about 1900. By the time children born in that year were well-grown, they needed documentation, identity cards, or printed licenses to live their lives. These pieces of paper determined how an individual could function as a citizen. It was necessary, for example, to present a voter registration certificate at the polls. Likewise, most states required persons wishing to live in legally married bliss to secure a marriage license. Speaking of ubiquitous documents, operators of motor vehicles were commonly required to carry driver’s licenses while operating cars or trucks. Paper money had been common in this country since the time of the American Revolution, but by the early twentieth century, the “personal check” had become the most convenient means of paying ordinary debts.
As this generation approached the age of high school they confronted a world at war. Some of the young men were drafted into America’s World War I armed forces—a path that carried with it an imposing battery of records and identity cards. The young men and women who went to college received student ID cards; those who completed college earned diplomas and membership cards from alumni associations. Graduates who wished to practice law or medicine displayed their diplomas on office walls next to licenses issued by professional organizations or state certifying boards.
Just as these “pieces of paper” confirmed what we were qualified to do, they also governed where we were allowed to go. Travel on such forms of commercial transportation as ships, railroads, airplanes and buses was available only to those who held printed tickets. To anyone who has ridden a passenger train, Cary Grant’s ability (in North by Northwest) to travel without a ticket from New York to Chicago is one of his more impressive achievements. Attendance at many important events (weddings, graduations, recitals) required a printed invitation. The right to attend an even larger number of events—movies, plays, concerts, operas, sporting competitions, conventions—required tickets for which one had to pay.