Wizards, Wired Women, Historians, Contrarians, Eulogizers, and Other Online Personae

by John F. Barber

Most of us who use the Internet daily do so with the thought that it has always existed. But little more than 25 years ago, the Internet existed only in the minds of the computer scientists and engineers who were working to create a way to link computers across the country. The computer network they developed became one of the most important technological breakthroughs of our time and transformed communications as radically as did radio, telephone, and television. It also provided an arena for daily interaction with others. This is the subject of Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's book Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. Hafner and Lyon tell the story of young computer whizzes who invented the basis of a digital world which many of us consider every bit as fundamental as the earth, air, fire, and water basis of our physical world.

The story that Hafner and Lyons do not tell is how the Internet, in its short history, has, with other iterations of computer technology, created a digital cultural context within which we are examining our notions of literacy, gender, identity, and interaction. Other authors have taken on these subjects, producing a broad range of papertext books and journal articles. We feel that there is much to be learned from these papertexts and with this issue we are proud to inaugurate a new section of hypertextual reviews of papertexts written by our readers.

The collection of reviews featured here is broad and illuminating. For example, reviewing Steven Talbott's book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, Joshua L. Farber says Talbott threads a line between the optimism of cyberpromoters and netizens and the doomsday predictions of critics who blame technology for the loss of personal connection and interaction in human life and fear government of big business control or abuse. Of special interest to readers, says Farber, is Talbott's examination of the electronic word and his condemnation of the ways in which we allow computer technology paradigms to change how we think.

Wired Women
One of these changes might be how we think of our interactions with others in local, physical neighborhoods. Nick Carbone, reviewing The Wired Neighborhood by Stephen Doheny-Farina, calls it a thoughtful contrarian argument about how to respond to the evolution of computer technology and connectivity. Doheny-Farina's central argument, says Carbone, is that in connecting everyone, computer networks further isolate us by abstracting us from place and virtualizing human relations. The solution: we must make the effort to change our thinking from global to local and work to develop computer technology that will promote and maintain wired neighborhoods that benefit the communal experiences made rich by the particular physical locations in which they occur.

This may be more easily said than done according to Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise who examine the fact that we seem to port many of our real life prejudices and stereotypes unchanged into cyberspace. Entitled Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, their book is a collection of stories of women's experiences with the Internet. Many of these stories, according to reviewer Robin A. Morris, have to do with online harassment. Her review concludes that since the Internet was built by and for men we will have to work to create safe spaces within this patriarchal structure. The ability to connect with other women via the Internet, to become wired, concludes Morris, helps to further women's agendas. Reviewing the same book, Marcy Bauman says it portrays life in cyberspace as nuanced, complex, and interesting, while providing thoughtful reflections on being a woman on the Internet. Bauman's review asks rhetorically "What does it mean to inhabit a female body in the physical world, with all the world's familiar freedoms and restrictions, and also to be freed from these restrictions and subject to new constraints in cyberspace? Does the medium lend itself to the weakening of personal boundaries?"

Online Personae
The Internet's ability to weaken personal boundaries, encourage the production of new forms of self-identity, and promote interaction in virtual communities has long been an interest of Sherry Turkle. Reviewing Turkle's newest book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Cynthia Haynes says the abilities provided by the Internet for students to create new forms of self and new forms of interaction are forcing writing teachers to learn more about these new contexts in order to keep pace with the demystification of knowledge their students face both in and out of the classroom. As a result, Haynes' review concludes that gazing into our computer screens we may well find ourselves in one of most significant sites of struggle for a sense of self identity.

A growing dependence on computer-based communication is forcing us to not only reexamine our self-identity, but also our notions of literacy, specifically the primacy of the print-based book. Is the book doomed? Or will it evolve to encompass digital insertions? In a review of The Future of the Book, a collection of essays edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, Lee Honeycutt concludes that the book will survive, but probably in a much changed form, one that includes CD-ROM insertions, for example. Honeycutt says the essays in this book point to the necessity for changing notions of literacy to encompass various media while excluding none. The printed word, he says, will be part of the mix for many years to come.

This may be good news for the avid reader, but Sven Birkerts is still worried about the apparent demise of reading. Reviewing Birkerts' book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Susan Lewis-Wallace says Birkerts views the increase in technology as detrimental to our acquisition of knowledge. Learning takes time, says Birkerts, time to accumulate and reflect on information, and then more time to synthesize this information in order to make meaning of one's life. The advent of nearly instantaneous electronic communications erases this time for reflection by demanding immediate response. Wallace concludes that we must continue to value reading and reflection as ways to enjoy life.

Reading and reflection and writing in response to either or both is also a way to learn. But teachers wishing to focus class activities and assignments on the transition between traditional print and online cultures have had only few textbooks to choose from. Two new books are changing this scenario. First, there is Julie Bates Docks's The Press of Ideas: Readings for Writers on Print Culture and the Information Age. Reviewer Bob Whipple calls it a good candidate for writing classes exploring the impact of technology on the history and future of personal and cultural literacies. The second is Victor Vitanza's CyberReader. Bob Timm says the greatest strength of CyberReader, with its accompanying WWW site, may be its yet unrealized potential possibilities to correlate and present issues confronted by students in their general use of computers and cyberspace. The articles collected in this anthology range from the theoretical concepts of hyperreality to practical topics like hacking, gender, and censorship. Timm concludes that papertexts like CyberReader are a necessary medium for introducing tentative student writers to cyberspace.

Another useful book, especially for providing teachers with valuable background, is Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History by Gail Hawisher, Paul LeBlanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia Selfe. Susan Halter says this papertext reads less like a history than a whole research library as it incorporates scholarship, political, social, personal, and economic narratives, interview transcripts, even a transcript of a MOO session. Halter sees this papertext spiraling back over itself again and again in a hypertextual-like context similar to William Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom! in which the characters tell and retell the same story over and over again, sometimes to each other, sometimes with each other but always within the author's caveat that what is being created is probably true enough.

Kip Strasma agrees with Halter that Hawisher, Leblanc, Moran, and Selfe's book can be read as a novel. It can also be read, Strasma says, as hypertext, as a Computers and Composition narrative, as an annotated bibliography, as science fiction, as a journal, and as a textbook. The end result is that while not comprehensive, Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History presents an account of key persons, publications, and practices responsible for making the field of computers and composition what it is today.

In his review, Ted Nellen applauds this presentation of what, until now, has been largely a folk or oral history. Nellen says Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran, and Selfe have produced a celebration of teachers exploring new ways to use new technology to facilitate the teaching of writing. The textual representation of this history through numerous sidebars and personal accounts, provides, says Nellen, a sense of the communal commraderie and hypertextually webbed context of the computers and writing arena.

However, according to reviewer Joan Latchaw, a similar approach does not work as well in Joan Tornow's Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom. Where the pseudohypertextual links in Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History provide a sense of context, they tend to create a sense of disjointed textual exploration of multiple subjects in Tornow's book, says Latchaw. Despite the broad range of subject matter---science, philosophy, critical theory, and composition---and narrative qualities --ethnography, theoretical, and analytical---the net result is disjointed and lacking in coherent structure. This disjointedness, however, may be its promise, suggests Latchaw, when she says the book, because it raises more questions than it answers, may be kindling for further research. Despite its weaknesses, Latchaw concludes, Tornow's book in worth exploring, especially by teachers integrating computer technology into their writing classrooms.

The common theme running through these reviews is the impact of computer technology on our notions of writing, self, and community. These papertexts represent serious investigations of the implications arising from our embracing computer technology as a way to facilitate self-discovery and social interaction. They provide useful guidelines for those of us teaching and learning in webbed environments. As there is much to learn from these reviews and the papertexts they connect to, we envision that these reviews and others that will follow in subsequent issues of Kairos will remain perpetually available to students, teachers, researchers, and other readers as part of a constantly growing, evolving, and interactive bibliographic database. We welcome your participation and invite you to submit a papertext review.

Dr. John F. Barber
Department of Language and Communication
Northwestern State University
Natchitoches, LA 71497

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