Staying Human in the Digital Age: A Guided, Annotated Tour of One Person's Adventures Teaching and Writing in Cyberspace

by Lawrence J. Clark

Some Pre-Thoughts

How to Read this Article

Why I Wrote It

How I Wrote It

The Actual Article Starts Here

Some Pre-Thoughts

When I first began "pre-thinking" this article, the main question in my mind wasn't what I was going to say, but HOW I was going to say it.

I knew, based upon conversations with the Kairos editors, that I wanted to do two things:

1) Give a "guided tour" of my WWW teaching site, and

2) Discuss the joys and frustrations of remaining human, and more specifically, being an "artsy- type" in this Digital Age, or Information Age, or whateveryour favorite term might be.

I am a poet, writer, philosopher, actor, and musician. I also occasionally dabble in sculpture, photography, cookery, child-rearing, and other related arts. In order to subsidize my many time-consuming but rarely income-generating habits, and also as a way of, hopefully, contributing to the future welfare and happiness of God's children here on earth, I contract myself out to an educational institution called a community college, where I experience the joys and frustrations of teaching 5-6 sections of writing and literature courses each semester.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to why I am writing this article. For in the midst of the creating, learning, teaching, loving, and sharing which is going on in my life and in my classrooms, a revolution has been taking place in the world around me--the world is, without our consent, becoming digitized. Not just the business world, not just the government bureaucracies, but the very elements which I consider to be most frail and most human, and some would say, furthest removed from the "corruption" of this digital mania--I speak of art, of poetry, of music, those magical gifts which some are blessed to be endowed with, and others are blessed to enjoy. These are the traits which are shared by us all, and which have helped to describe and shape human experience from the beginning of time. What will happen to my poem, my song in the Digital Age? Should I "sell out" and write a Cyber-book called "Lexias of Grass?" Or would it be called "Leaves of Silicon?"

But I am here to say that ALL IS NOT LOST, or even "corrupted"--as a matter of fact, much is to be gained. Instead of a poet paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to print a few copies of a printed book, anyone with access to a computer and a modem can now "publish" for thousands or millions of potential readers. Of course if you are reading this article that possibility has, I'm sure, already crossed your mind, so I won't belabor the point.

In this "essay," and through a tour of my "Web-World," I hope to take you on a journey which will give hope to anyone concerned with such matters.

I guess we all spend our lives looking for a feeling of "connectedness." I occasionally, when starving for human contact, emerge from my cave-like, cookie-cutter apartment, to take a journey across the street, where, not a hundred and fifty yards from my kitchen, I am confronted with the bright flourescent lights of a large grocery store--

hundreds of bustling bodies--bagging, checking, buying, grazing, comparing, counting coupons, but most obvious to me, avoiding each other's gaze as if it were easier to pretend that the others did not exist at all. How can I actually be there, though, if they don't/won't see me?

I play games sometimes, and dress in various attire to see what kind of reactions I will get. I may walk in the store with a business suit and tie, receiving smiles and "yessirs" from virtually everyone. I can come back an hour later dressed in faded jeans, a t-shirt, my hair cut loose from the confines of its previously neatly-tied pony tail, and mothers will guide their carts to the other side of the aisle, and checkers will frown and curtly ask for my driver's license, their eyes fixed on the Wolf Brand Chili display on aisle 7.

I am not connected to those people.

Next door to the supermarket, Sam's heirs rake in the profits while hundreds of worshippers scurry about the store, honoring the Twin Gods of Christmas, Santa Claus and the Visa purchase statistics.

I am not connected to those people.

I return home, sit alone in my dining room in front of a piece of molded plastic--

At last, I am connected!

Ahh . . . the ironies of life in the Digital Age--how can I interact more with a machine than I do with "real" people? Can I still call myself human?


How to Read this Article

In the top left-hand corner of each page or "node" of this piece, you will find three buttons that look like this: . To navigate through the article, simply click on the left arrow to go back to the previous section, the "home" button to return to the beginning of the article, and the right arrow to go to the next section.

You will also find links embedded within the document. They will sometimes take you to documents or specific points within those documents--those documents may contain links to Web pages located within this article's directory (those with the navigator tools on them), or sometimes to a document located in a different directory or maybe even on an entirely different server. Please, feel free to explore and go off on tangents. Remember, though, that you can always press the "back" button on your Web browser (or view a history of recently visited documents, if your browser contains that feature) to get back to the article.

If you get totally lost, just keep in mind that the article starts with the document called "lcstarta.htm."


Why I Wrote It

Why did I write this article? I would like to encourage others to take their own stab at "Web-authoring." I would like to help demystify the whole process, and to try and provide some guidance to other instructors on how to create and "run" a course on the Web, or at least one way to do it.

I have also included the sections where I describe my experiences teaching on the Web, partly to try and convince skeptics (and there are many) of its validity, in part to provide "ammo" for those needing to convince skeptics in their own neck of the woods.

Writing this article has also afforded me the opportunity to reflect on what I do, and how and why I do it.

Finally, I love a challenge, and writing this article has been that and more!

Oh, and how could I forget the $5,000,000 advance Rupert Murdock gave me to write it? (minor detail . . .)


How I Wrote It

Ah, the dilemmas of a Cyber-author! In this Digital Age, we are faced with many choices--and I am definitely a pro-choice author! Should I write it in a straight linear text, and let the reader scroll through or print it out to read later? That would be very convenient-- for me, anyway. But Kairos is a new kind of journal,and its very nature insists upon a different kind of writing, and a different kind of presentation.

As I write this, in late 1995/early 1996, most Web authors are basically limited to the HTML programming language which, although it affords many possibilities (see Stuart Moulthrop's "Hegirascope"), such as links within a document and/or virtually any other document on the Internet, it is still, well, rather primitive compared to what can be done with Java and the many sophisticated "plug-ins," such as Shockwave, being written for use with the Netscape Web browser (check out "Hypercafe", an experiment in "hypervideo," the short definition of which, according to its creators at The Georgia Institute of Technology, is: "an emerging medium that enables hypermedia theorists, developers, writers, educators, and filmmakers to combine film and video with the multivocality and nonlinearity of hypertext"--if you want the long definition you'll have to go visit their site!).

Although "Hypercafe" and other such projects are cool for researchers and are important to the development of the artistic possibilities of the Web, I would recommend that most authors who are computer literate enough to browse the Web and create basic word-processing documents starting with a simple word processor and an HTML converter. (I wrote this article mainly with (eek!) Microsoft's Internet Assistant, which is "free" for Word 6.0 users, and then I"touched it up" in straight HTML code using Windows Notepad.)

In HTML, though, unlike Eastgate's Storyspace, the hypertext authoring tool of choice for many hypertext fiction authors, neither the author nor the reader can see a "map" or "chart" view of a directory and the Web pages it contains (Storyspace calls them "writing spaces,"a term I much prefer), and even worse, one can only see what links go out of a document, and not those which are linked to it. (The latest versions of Storyspace for both Macintosh and Windows now convert--quite easily, in fact-- to HTML, so authors can create works in Storyspace and post them on the Web; it will be a while, though, until HTML is able to support the more sophisticated features of Storyspace, such as guard fields and macro and micro map views of the "writing space" the reader is immersed in.)

So alas, I sit writing this "hyper-essay," or "cyber-article," with a traditional word processor, and I will save it, using the Internet Assistant converter, to HTML so it can be posted and read on the World Wide Web.

These limitations of HTML are not all negative, though, because as the author, I can have a little more control over what the reader sees and in what order it is seen. Of course, any Web-savvy reader could just go to the index of this directory and see an alphabetically-arranged list of all the HTML documents, click on one, and see what it contains. But it is my guess that most readers will be "obedient" to the instructions, and click on the "next" or "previous" buttons which appear in the top left corner of each page. Unlike a printed book or journal, though, it is much more difficult for the reader to "sneaka peek" at the "ending," allowing (and forcing) me as the author to use a very different set of rhetorical strategies to present my thoughts. Moulthrop, John Slatin, and others have been trying for a while now to figure out exactly what that new "rhetoric of hypertext" is/will be, could and/or should be, so I'll just leave that in their hands for now and try to finish writing this article!

One Document or Many?

Another dilemma I faced was whether to write the entire article in one large document with internal bookmarks (or "anchors") and hyperlinks or to create several documents and link them together. Although it would have been far easier for me, as the author, to write it using Plan A, I chose the latter for the following reasons:

So that's enough of that--let's get on with it, eh?