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Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age

Tuman, M.C. (1992). Word Perfect: literacy in the computer age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Tuman’s book provides an interesting snapshot of how folks in the discipline were thinking about digital literacy at the dawn of the era. Some of it is rather humorous in light of where we are now: he bemoans the fate of literacy “in a world where economic expansion will be propelled forward by teams of workers collaborating through computer networks, not as it was in the last century, by amateur tinkerers working in isolation...” (14). (Social software has begun to adequately negate this fear, I think. What are most bloggers if not amateur tinkerers?) He suggests that the problems of successfully using a physical library system will be solved by CD-ROM (19). (Obviously before the Web, Google, or online encyclopedias.) He ponders the possibility that the private thoughts of individuals transmitted through writing will be lost “in a world characterized by radically more efficient means of storing and retrieving information.” (I'd point to both nonymous and anonymous blogs here, and argue that they have actually enhanced the production of this sort of knowledge.)

Of course, Tuman had no crystal ball to peer into and divine the digital future, and we must be fair about that. The book makes some good contributions. He spends some time thinking about that ways that hardware and code influence writing, turning what was formerly a private act into a “potentially public and social one” (11). He connects this to changes in a workplace where workers’ personal craft knowledge and skills have been devalued in favor of public, scientific knowledge that fuels sheer efficiency (14). (A la Zuboff.) Later on, he examines what he calls the “struggle between texts and graphics”, wondering how the new potential offered by word processing and graphics applications will affect literacies and what developing a field of multimedia comp instruction might entail (110). (A la Lanham.) He rightly argues that the discipline will either be transformed or marginalized, and so should get to work pronto. In the course of this discussion, he makes an argument that closely predicts the value of writing in networked environments:

The literate of the future will be neither the dutiful but unimaginative scribe, nor the powerful but at times heedless intellectual; the computer age will support a new literate, someone committed to working with others, indeed, inextricably linked with them, both literally through computer networks and metaphorically through common causes. (123)

He takes the interesting, optimistic step of hoping that developing digital literacies will have a generally positive affect on mankind. Transforming the limitations of print text, he says, may enable

  • more powerful transformations of nature
  • more powerful explanations of human conduct (a la Hiltz & Turoff, Sproull & Kiesler)
  • more powerful readings of texts (a la Landow)
  • more powerful, because more symbolic, renderings of experience (130)
All of this might be possible if people envision a better world and work to bring that world into being. He’s careful to avoid technological determinism: “the crucial question becomes, not what a technology can do, but how people will be able to interact with it in shaping and fulfilling their own motives” (133). He’s also not as blindly optimistic about the possibilities of democracy as so much early CMC research was, and is very sensitive to the fact that a world of “multiple, de-entered and unauthorized voices is precisely the world most supportive of a new post-industrial economic order managed by a new breed of robber barons, the multinational, de-centered, largely invisible corporations of late capitalism” (135).