Longer Reflections on the Differences between Print and Hypertext

The papers from the students in English 110 were some of the best researched I have ever encountered in a Composition 1 course. In addition, the research papers from the course (an investigative comparison between communicating through the Web and through printed text) have encouraged me to reflect on the shifting terrain of writing.... The works of Nick Athineos, Judah Beck, Juan Cardona, and Judith Soriano all caused me to pause and reconsider the relationship of hypertext and print.

Nick Athineos analyzed the representations of William Foster's death on the Web and in print text. He found that the speculations about Foster's death as a murder emerged in newspaper reports (Washington Post and New York Times) shortly after Foster's death. These speculations, however, were soon replaced by more-level headed accounts of Foster's death in the following days. The speculations about Foster's death as a potential murder were not followed up; websites sprang up that filled in this need.

While I disagree with Nick's argument that there was a "need" that had to be filled, he was correct in pointing the potential of the Web to keep alive speculation or a thread of the news event that the mainstream media has dropped. What interests me about my reaction is that I was somewhat taken back by the argument American citizens had a right to more information on Foster's death than what was available in newspaper accounts. While I applaud the openness, the alternative news sources the Web provides, I think of this benefit in terms of hearing about events from Eastern Europe or gaining multiple perspectives on developments in Israel's West Bank. The speculation that Foster's death was a murder seemed to me to be far-fetched when reported in the mainstream media, and when Nick suggested that the websites were providing a valuable service for democracy--the openness and flow of information--my first reaction was only for a bunch of conspiracy buffs.... however, Nick's argument that the Web keeps information alive and allows other conduits for communication is absolutely correct. The development of communication technology will keep information flowing and politicians honest.

Judah Beck compared his CD subscription to Time and his father's print subscription. While Judah argued that the CD subscription made the retrieval of old articles easier, the true strength of his essay was the connections between him and his father as well as between the two mediums. That is, the dissemination of information always seems to be a tool, a way of talking between generations as well as between mediums. As Judah's essay points out, the Internet will replace printed text but this replacement does not erase what has come before. Rather the transition from print to hypertext, from print to the Internet, is a building upon--an act of adding to already existing knowledge. What electronic communications will provide us with then is an easier time in recovering the past, not an erasure of it.

Juan Cardona's essay on "Books vs. Computers" begins with the following paragraph:

What would you say if I were to tell you that there is a revolution taking place this very moment? which has affected each and everyone of us in one way or another. If I were to tell you that because of this revolution, people are becoming less self reliant and more dependent on computers? The meaning of the word memory is also about to change from the human capacity to remember all sorts of things to the human capacity to use a computer. Nevertheless, what if I told you that in a near future you and your children will not know the meaning of the word hard work or manual labor? and that the answers to your everyday questions will be as far away as the touch of a button. Last but not least, what do we make of a school without books? Although these questions may seem somewhat awkward or even weird, they describe a change our society will be--or already is--going through.

Juan focuses on the question of human memory and hypertext: how do our interactions with books help us learn? how do they help us learn to remember things? will computers build our memories or do the different methods of access to information/memory they provide really produce an erasure? [It seems to me that if Judah is pointing out the continuum of knowledge despite the changing medium, Juan is asking if this continuum really exists]. Juan's model or use of the idea of the digital revolution posits a very different model of the transition from print to hypertext than Judah's suggests...

Here is some more material from Judith Soriano's essay on the differences she encountered when researching women in colonial Latin America in the library and on the Internet:

In my Latin American History class during my first semester at college, I encountered my first real college research paper. We were allowed to choose any topic and to write on it. I picked women believing that would be the easiest to do research on. I thought that I would look up Latin American Women easily on the Internet and get enough information to write my paper. How wrong I was. The paper required a deep analysis of Colonial Latin American Women from the 1680s to 1800 and an interpretations of two scholarly articles. On the Internet I found no in depth information and no articles pertaining to Latin American Women from 1680 to 1800. Because the topic was so specific, the Internet did not have the answers and information I needed in order to complete my research. I did find all the answers and information I could ever need to write a full analytic paper in the library, however.

The library is a "collection of documents" as Zorana Ercegova stated in an article written in Library and Information Science Research. William Katz says the library is a "reference collection." The library has books, maps, audiovisuals, patents, manuscripts, journals, reference books, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of media. They all can be found through the library catalog by author, title and key word entries. Every document has its own call number to retrieve the documents you desire.

Web sites and Web search engines are considered to have "crude retrieval mechanisms" which are incomparable to the library (Ercegova 37). These mechanisms consist of Alta Vista, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo. All these search engines may have a vast collection of information but they lack the structure and order that the library catalogs have. The Web sites have just begun to organize and become a location where we can retrieve information, and it will take a while longer to reach the libraries' standard.

Since the world wide web's resources are still considered to be in their infancy, surfing on the Internet for a specific topic can be time consuming. It is true that you do find some information on Web sites but spending all that time to find a couple of sentences on the topic does not have its merits. We have to link up from one website to another hoping to find something through trial and error. We would also have to know enough about computers and the Internet to maintain your link. One little error puts us at risk of losing all the research we have gained during a session (Biddiscombe 10). When doing a key word search on the search engines, thousands of sites can be pulled out. From these few, some of them have general, broad information and some of them have strange concepts that you cannot even evaluate in terms of facts, opinion, fiction or non-fiction. Today Web sites can be created by either an organization or an individual. They can express their own ideas and interests; they are not held to any standards the way books are. Right now it is very difficult to find adequate information on the Internet (Rusch-Feja 5-6).

Libraries do not only have books, magazines and journals; they also have librarians. Human beings can be our best resources. They are there to listen to and give you advice on how to approach a research topic. They can tell you how to find information and what the best sources are for a particular topic. Librarians are "information units" who have in depth knowledge about resources that can be used in specific subject area research. As Nardi writes, "The use of specific and often highly specialized domain knowledge is an aspect of human-mediated searching unlikely to be matched by technology" (62).


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