October 24, 2006

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).

October 19, 2006

Hypertext 3.0

Landow, G.P. (2006). Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an era of globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Landow’s book is an excellent overview of the primary aspects of hypertext theory, and would be a solid main textbook in any textual history or digital text seminar. The primary aspects are grouped in eight sections:

  1. Hypertext: An Introduction — covering definitions, lexias, general history (Bush, etc.), and general connections to books and the print revolution.
  2. Hypertext and Critical Theory — the usual PoMo suspects (Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, etc.), decentering and nonlinearity, convergence/confluence.
  3. Reconfiguring the Text — weblogs, visual elements, animation, dispersion, complications presented by open text
  4. Reconfiguring the Author — a condensed version of authorship theory as applied to digital environments. Nothing new here, but it’s a good intro to the subject.
  5. Reconfiguring Writing — writing pedagogy and problems in new media environments
  6. Reconfiguring Narrative — Issues presented by the choose-your-own-adventure aspects of hypertext environments, with several examples/case studies
  7. Reconfiguring Literary Education — researching and teaching literacy in hypertext enviornments
  8. The Politics of Hypertext: Who Controls the Text? — Postcolonialism, access, pornography, copyright, surveillance. IMHO, so much is shoehorned into this section that it becomes a mishmash, but there’s hardly room for proper attention to all of these issues.

The most useful sections for me are the first two, which provide further resources for areas I’ve been exploring: linking taxonomies, analogues to book history, and rhizomatic theory.
(B - If you need elaboration on any aspect of this, please let me know. Since the text is an overview of hypertext theory, any section of it could be blown up into a book, and that makes it hard to cover specifics. Plus, I'm not sure how much of this is useful to you.)