CyberReader by Victor Vitanza

CyberReader cover

reviewed by

Bob Timm

Baruch College, City University of New York


To read this review, you may simply scroll down or follow the links below to the individual sections:


In May of 1996, I began planning a new syllabus for my Fall 1996 English Composition and Research courses at Baruch College in New York City. Having volunteered my classes for a grant program piloting the use of Computer Mediated Communication in writing courses, I put myself through a crash course in the Internet, hypertext, and the World Wide Web. Of great concern to me was locating a textbook for my students which would ease their introduction to cyberspace, as I was well aware that my City University of New York students would be a diverse lot, with many lower-income or immigrant students experiencing cyberspace for the first time. Luckily, a fellow cyber-colleague referred me to Victor Vitanza's first edition of CyberReader, which had just been published in the spring of 1996. Upon first impression, it seemed to be just what I was looking for:

1) a traditionally organized composition reader, with chapter topics focusing on various topics related to cyberspace


2) a technical instructional text for exploring cyberspace.

An added attraction was the website the publisher and author had set up as a means of updating the text as students and faculty began to use it. This review is based largely on the use of this text and its corresponding website in my classes this past term.

The main object of this review is the papertext version, though the necessity of considering the website as well underlines the difficulty in publishing any papertext about cyberspace; it's somewhat like trying to carve on a stone the images you observe in a tornado.

I have been informed by the author that the second edition is already in the works so stay tuned to the CyberReader website for its arrival.


Two key words which the author stresses in the preface to the first edition, speed and change, provide good introductions to the daunting challenge of publishing a traditional-looking textbook about a medium which resists any kind of stability. Here, Vitanza concedes, "I have been painfully aware that any article or topic/theme I select may be obsolete as soon as the book appears." Thus, the website was conceived as a means for obviating those problems, allowing the author to add additional readings and references and update those included in the papertext. If the website promises more meaningful and timely readings and links, then, one might question what the value of the papertext may be, besides providing justification for funds to the publisher and royalties to the author. Indeed, many of my own students were ecstatic about the possibility of getting all their resources free over the Internet and some were a bit skeptical about the necessity of paying for the papertext at all.

However, for most of us, faculty and students alike, papertext is still a more familiar and comfortable medium. Though the idea of a class website including all necessary resources is an attractive possibility, papertexts are still much more readable, portable, and user-friendly. As such, the CyberReader papertext was quite helpful in introducing many students to the issues and topics without dealing with all the practical headaches familiar to any instructor attempting to guide novice freshmen through a computer lab workshop.

Furthermore, the simultaneous use of the papertext and the hypertext worked well throughout the term at providing a practical experience of the issues raised in studying the movement between these two media.


In the face of the challenges presented in the basic mission of a papertext about cyberspace, the selection and arrangement of the chapter headings is generally successful at providing a stable, relevant framework through which to explore the main topic. The chapters are outlined as follows:

1. Cyberspace (Virtual Reality/Hypereality)

2. Freedom/Censorship (Security/Hackers)

3. CyberWars (Flame Wars, Sexual Politics and Netsex/"Porn"/Violence)

4. Hypertext (Virtual Books, Multimedia)

5. Virtual Libraries (and Copyright vs. Copyleft)

6. CyberPunk/Cyborg

7. MUDs/MOOs

All of these chapter topics were well-defined and seem to correlate with the issues confronted by my own students in the general use of computers and cyberspace, though the ambiguous nature of a lot of the terminology allows for much overlap among these chapters, as may be self-evident from simply the chapter titles. There is a vast range in these chapters from theoretical concepts like hyperreality to practical subjects like hacking or virtual libraries. Each chapter contains about 6-9 readings, which allows for a eclectic mixture of scholarly articles, selections from mainstream media, and websites transferred to papertext.

The most compelling topics are concepts that run like threads through all the chapters, especially the issues of gender, censorship, hacking, and so on. Like any anthology, though, instructors can mix and match readings as they choose. There seems to be an attempt in this first edition to organize readings and chapters ranging from the most abstract to the most practical, moving from a theoretical statement on the real and the represented by Umberto Eco in Chapter One to instructions on programming characters and environments in MOOs in Chapter Seven. Thus, starting with Chapter One may provide a bit of a challenge in trying to break the ice introducing novice freshman to cyberspace.

In addition to the standard "Questions and Suggestions for Further Study" available at the end of the chapter in most anthologies, CyberReader also includes for each topic a listing of relevant web pages, newsgroups, and terminology, as well as some transcripts of sample web searches on key words in the topic. These are useful as illustrations for students without web access, but in many cases the website served these purposes much more efficiently, as might be expected. However, the papertext references are more complete and also include traditional book and periodical references.

Of especially good use are the general appendices at the end of the book, though Appendix A, with its series of "How to . . . " categories, is a prime example of why many classes may find the first edition already out of date. For anyone with graphical access to the web and standard e-mail software like Eudora, the instructions provided here seem quite old hat. Instructions on the use of e-mail and browsing the web are invariably better handled in the labs according to the specific technology available to individual colleges and classes.


CyberReader provides a strong organizational foundation and many of the readings provide worthy entries into several key issues of cyberspace, but the nature of the text and its subject while require timely updates and revisions of some readings. At last report, approximately 25% of the readings will be replaced or updated. There are few readings which are glaringly out-of-date, most notably one particular reading on Cyborg culture dealing with the rock musician Billy Idol's fleeting attempt to capitalize on cyberculture. The readings vary greatly in style, tone, and length, though if there is any political overtone to the collection, it is a recurrent suggestion that cyberspace is revolutionary, rebellious, anti-establishment, the direct descendent of 1960's counterculture. There are a number of selections by Timothy Leary who, before his death this past year, had transformed himself (or "morphed" himself, as the trendy cyberpunk might say) from hippie drug guru into 1990's Generation X Cyber-prophet. The introduction to the textbook is presented in a kind of papertext version of hypertext, two columns running parallel as separate voices, one in the voice of "Bill" (in the style of a certain CEO from Seattle) and the other in the voice of "Tim" (as in Leary). The "Tim" introduction certainly aims for more excitement and more of a youth factor in the cyber "revolution" and there is more of that particular thread running through the text than the more practical, nuts-and-bolts, captain-of-the-Enterprise ideal.

The reading selections do well at providing important background information on many of these topics, sorting out the facts and myths of compelling topics like hackers and net security. I believe most of my students thought the Web itself was something run by hackers, but by the end of the term, they could quickly comment on the difference between hacking and cracking and exactly what kinds of stealth computer activity might actually be deemed criminal behavior. Likewise, my students quickly became experts through the readings on exactly what a virtual library might be and how much of the Internet's potential is yet unrealized.

There were several readings which stand out in particular as important and provocative class assignments. Chapter Two contains a selection from Harper's Forum was originally a chat room discussion of hacking involving several outspoken genuine hackers and notable writers in the field. This single reading provided the base of many short essays and research papers. Chapter Four also contains a compelling dialogue between critics Neil Postman and Camille Paglia on the 20th Century battle between words and images. One of the most explosive readings, though, is in the final chapter on MOO and MUD culture. Julian Dibble's "A Rape in Cyberspace," which originally appeared in The Village Voice, recounts one of the first reported stories of "cyber rape." While some of the theoretical discussions of the difference between real life and virtual reality from Chapter One floated like lead at the beginning of the term, this reading had many students speaking up on the dichotomy of real and virtual.

In many cases, the partial coverage of the readings presented was simply unavoidable. The issues involved are simply too vast, complex, and dynamic to be reasonably covered in a selection of less than 10 readings. For example, Chapter Three on CyberWars presents two powerful issues, gender and censorship on the Web, but the readings provided seem to beg for further discussion and research (though one might view that as a quite positive feature, since provoking challenges and investigations is our goal). The readings included here related to the Communications Decency Act provoked much thought and discussion in my classes but many of my students spent much time on-line trying to catch up with all that had transpired with this "cyberwar" since these initial readings. Likewise, the readings on gender and computers already seemed to strike a false note for some of my students who considered the viewpoint somewhat dated. The thesis proposed in readings by Deborah Tannen and Susan Herring, that cyberspace is essentially a male-dominated environment, was heavily challenged in class discussions and student papers, especially by those female students who had spent a lot of their lab time teaching and instructing their less knowledgeable male classmates. (For further thoughts on women and computers, please see 2 reviews of Wired Women in this issue of Kairos: 1) Robin A. Morris 2) Marcy Bauman)


As promised, the website serves as a resource for updating the textbook as all the issues raised in CyberReader rapidly evolve. It also compresses all the links into one manageable site for students and includes links to other educational resources like on-line writing labs. The site was extremely useful for my classes, especially for those students new to the concept of web-surfing and hypertext. Many students used the site as a home base from which to launch further research into readings and paper topics.

Access to the website and the links provided also gave the class readings much more life and immediacy. Writers and critics like Eco, Postman, and Paglia became living, breathing people once students could access other sites, photos, and home pages for many of the authors collected here. In several cases, students queried the authors they read through e-mail as a follow-up to class discussions. This, ultimately, is the what the website is about: extending those rhetorical tentacles beyond the boundaries of the classroom and the textbook, facilitating research and fostering self-motivated interest in the subjects presented. It also provides greater freedom in presentation for Vitanza and instructors using the text, as the supporting material is literally inexhaustible and quite varied; for example, it was only in the context of a visit to the Disney World website (linked in Chapter One) that many students began to comprehend Eco's concepts of hyperreality and the simulacrum.

As Vitanza envisions it, the site will expand as more classes use the text and will incorporate suggestions from faculty and students across the country. During the Fall term, the first full term for which the text was available, there was minimal updating done to the site. Still, the potential for turning the text into more of a hypertext remains promising. In the Spring term, Vitanza plans to offer links to many class syllabi using the text in the hopes of creating more of a CyberReader community on-line.


This premiere edition of CyberReader is noteworthy for breaking new ground in the concept of a class text. Victor Vitanza invites writing instructors to take their classes "where no classes have gone before" and I'm sure many will beam aboard for the trip. As a result, though, much more will be expected of future editions and the expansion of the website. The project as a whole is visionary and prophetic, though still largely an ideal at present.

In sum, what may be said about the first edition of CyberReader is what is often said about the Web and Cyberspace itself: its greatest strength lies in its possibilities, in the potential yet unrealized. Mr. Vitanza deserves great credit for creating a papertext which is about as useful and timely as it can be, considering the challenges he faced in putting it together (apparently it went from contract to full draft in about three months!). Certainly, any papertext about cyberspace may in its very conception be an anachronism, but the second edition is certainly worthy of great anticipation for many teachers of writing and any faculty or student interested in the intellectual approach to the information age.

Though it may be easy to criticize papertexts about cyberspace as besides the point, they are still a necessary medium for transporting a still quite tentative college population into this new world. While the tornado of cyberspace may not be slowing down, the stone carvings, the publication of papertexts like CyberReader, may be the only way at present for us to grasp it.

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