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Thoughts On 608 Readings: Week One, Week Two

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Some thoughts about week #1's readings, and then some thoughts about week #2's readings:

Last Week for English 608, we read an on-line treatise on the "History of the Internet" (ISOC 1), including its military origins as part of ARPANET. The most interesting part about the technical material--at least to me--was the way information flows in "packets" that follow no pre-set route to their destination. Indeed, since the structure of the internet is so loosely controlled and has no centralized hierarchy, it *can't* follow a single path to its destination. Each time someone sends an e-mail message, or links up to the World Wide Web to view a webpage, the information going out or coming in gets broken up into sections and each section wanders around from location to location along with other packets of information until it reaches a bunch headed in the same general location, switching from line to line and site to site until it arrives. It's sort of like living in a world filled with virtual bicycle messengers carrying packets. If I had to deliver a message to an address on Willamette Street, and merely walked outside my door. I might stop the first messenger passing by and ask (electronically) "Are you headed to 251 Willamette?"

The electronic recipient responds, "No. But I am stopping by Kinko's at 1300 Olive Street. I'll take it that far." He arrives at his destination, and then passes it half my packet off to another bicyclist carrying a bundle in the general direction, and gives the other half to a cabby who says he will pass by the location later on after he drops off a passenger. This continues, a shuffling from carrier to carrier, until it arrives at the intended destination. In the same way, information on a net like this is routed from stream to another in a nearly unpredictable manner.

Some of the implications I took from the first week's reading were (1) it would be really hard to ever destroy the internet. In a separate article upcoming in the May 2001 edition of Discover magazine, a mathematician suggests that even if 90% of the physical relay stations and routers were destroyed in a "packeted" information system, the remaining 10% would still be capable of transmitting information from point to point. I didn't understand how that worked at the time, but after the assigned reading, "History of the Internet" I can see it is because the packets of zeros and ones could be easily rerouted along the surviving lines). (2) It would be really hard to censor the internet using any sort of hardware or electronic program. If governmental agencies decided to do so, their best bet would not be to "block" certain sites or restrict access to them, but to spend an enormous sum by designing programs ("bots") to look for suspicious sites and report back to them. That sort of non-hierarchical complexity inherent in the net is excellent in terms of flexibility. It is also striking the amount of cooperation it took between various network communities to arrive at common standards for such a project. Makes me wonder why some research groups are advocating an "Internet-2," devoted only to research and the exchange of information, (so when searching for a specific key-word like "Shakespeare," one doesn't get 40,000 extra hits from commercial ventures selling Shakespeare mugs, and the like. Given the inherent difficulty in a decentralized network of preventing groups from posting whatever they would like on the 'net, I don't see how it would ever be possible to segregate the commercial and the educational communities on an internet. The author notes: "In the last few years, we have seen a new phase of commercialization. Originally, commercial efforts mainly comprised vendors providing the basic networking products, and service providers offering the connectivity and basic Internet services. The Internet has now become almost a 'commodity' service, and much of the latest attention has been on the use of this global information infrastructure for support of other commercial services. This has been tremendously accelerated by the widespread and rapid adoption of browsers and the World Wide Web technology, allowing users easy access to information linked throughout the globe" (http://www.isoc.org/internet-history/brief.html#Origins). The tone seems fairly positive to me. I have always moaned and complained about the commercialized nature of the internet, but I suppose as a historical trend the commercial impetus is a necessary part of the internet's developments, and that is what makes me think now that the idea of alternative models of the net based on Utopian desires for pure research and education aren't feasible.

The Cynthia Selfe essay: The first thing I noticed about Dr. Selfe's essay was that she anticipated her audience's reaction of being one of boredom, and rhetorically was positioning herself as an outsider, a minority within the profession composed largely of individuals who prefer not to think about the political implications of a technology. She attempted to bring the two "camps" together in her final few paragraphs, suggesting: "As composition teachers, deciding whether or not to use technology in our classes is simply not the point-&emdash;we have to pay attention to technology. When we fail to do so, we share in the responsibility for sustaining and reproducing a [sic] unfair system" (Selfe 2). The implication is that *not* having a position about computers is in itself a political position that encourages the continued trends of computer-usage in America, a sort of conservatism-by-default that results in the disadvantaged being handicapped by yet another literacy obstacle.

Furthermore, it provides an illusion to pedagogues. Teachers think (Selfe argues) that when we link literacy and computer technology, we feel absolved of our duty to think further about the issue: "As a result, we take comfort when the linkage between literacy and computer technology is portrayed as a socially progressive movement that will benefit American citizens generally and without regard for their circumstances or backgrounds. Such a belief releases us from the responsibility to pay attention."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that no professional organization among English teachers has offered a definitive statement of professional stance in regard to what educators' policies should be toward computer instruction: "neither the CCCC, nor the NCTE, nor the MLA, nor the IRA-&emdash;as far as I can tell&emdash;have ever published a single word about our own professional stance on this particular nationwide technology project: not one statement about how we think such literacy monies should be spent in English composition programs; not one statement about what kinds of literacy and technology projects should be funded or how excellence should be gauged in such projects; not one statement about the serious need for professional development and support for teachers that must be addressed within the context of the project." She concludes: "In our professional organizations, we need to take a series of carefully considered and very visible professional stands on a variety of technological issues now under debate in this country: for example, on the access issues we have discussed, on the issue of technology funding for schools, on the issue of multiple venues for students' literacy practices, on the national project to expand technological literacy, and so on" (Selfe 2).

I think that lack of an official statement isn't such a bad thing, myself. Right now, computer-instruction is still relatively new--only a few decades old--and we might want extra time to watch and see its effects before we start making huge, sweeping statements of policy for all teachers everywhere to listen to. I don't yet see why "a professional statement of policy" would not be equally liable to shut down our thinking about computers to the same extent. Such a "statement of policy" can also create the illusion that there is no further need for debate or analysis. We trade the illusion that "I don't need to think about technology simply because I don't use it in instruction" for the illusion that, "I don't need to think about technology because other people have already thought through these issues and made an official policy." Both seem like equally dangerous positions.

On the other hand, one trend Selfe points to is particularly worrisome to me. She points out that " computers continue to be distributed differentially along the related axes of race and socio-economic status and this distribution contributes to ongoing patterns of racism and to the continuation of poverty." Pointing out race/class correlations of computer-usage, the idea suggests that, ultimately, there is a danger is the new literacy movement. By making computer-literacy one of the "basics" (akin to traditional reading, writing, and 'rithmatic), we could end up perpetuating an inequality. The people who most need to have access to computers don't, and the rich and affluent do, in terms of school funding… By continuing to emphasize computer skills, by continuing to ensure the importance of access to computers, we may ultimately be doing damage to those minorities and impoverished youngsters who never have access to increasingly vital technologies of this sort. We could ultimately be ensuring their exclusion, even as we seek to embrace the technology.. Rather than freeing impoverished and minority students by providing access to computers to students generally, we might simply change the official criteria for both "literate" and "illiterate" individuals, while retaining the basic ratio of both groups, and the same lopsided number of minority and poor students in the "illiterate category." I can see the problem there.

Yet the trend Selfe points to--the continued manufacture of computer literates as a powerful that controls the data the computer illiterates need, along with the continued manufacture of computer illiterates who provide unskilled, low-paid labor necessary to sustain the economic system, seems to me most likely to function when there is a continuous demand for new technologies which in turn require new skills to use. The shift we have seen in computer usage, from cryptic line code to intuitive, user-interfaces will (hopefully) ensure that the newest and best technologies require the least amount of training. Selfe implies that more sophisticated technologies implies more sophisticated training and more sophisticated process. That seems like an intuitive equation, but (as an IBM convert to Macintosh) the reverse is more likely. Newer technologies should increasingly be easier to use, rather than the reverse.

Caught in the cycle of technological change for the last two decades, it is easy to think that computer technology will always be expensive, a tool and toy for the rich, and a playground for technophiles who memorize elaborate code. I suspect, however, there will be long periods (maybe 5-6 years in length each) in which in the future there will be lulls in the frantic pace of development. One reason that so many dot.coms went bust was that they were offering basically worthless services. In the same way, computer sales have slumped in the last three to four years simply because people don't yet need the 1.4 Gigahertz processors with umphteen bells and whistles. Computer marketers play on the hype of "newest, fastest, cutting-edge" to ensure sales, but consumers, I think, can only afford so much. Take pencils, for instance. My pencil is fine. It writes. It is easy to sharpen. It costs 40 cents. There is no reason for me to purchase a $3,000, solar-powered pencil with a micromechanism that powderizes and heats graphite, with little robots that imbed the graphite in the paper, or on on-board GPA placed under the eraser, or an elaborate system of hydraulic presses that changes the pencil to the shape of the individual users hands. The average consumer, while it might be impressed, simply isn't going to go out and buy them, when regular pencils do just fine.

In the same way, while the computer industry has traditionally done quite well churning out $3,000 top o' the line computers, with each year's model better than last, rendering computer obsolete at the speed of capitalism, that is a trend that can't be supported forever. Eventually, common sense will take hold, and people who are happy with the computer that still has enough memory to run their word-processor, spread-sheet, and webpages. The appearance of $250 cheapie-IBM knockoffs, and Web-TV sets, will hasten that process. The poorest of the poor may not have access to these computers in the house, but as they get cheaper, might they have access to them in libraries, or public schools?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the trend Selfe points to is one that can't sustain itself indefinitely, even if has sustained itself for two or three decades. I think the most productive thing we can do to ensure that minorities have equal access to computer technology is support every cheap alternative technology that comes around. Purchase those $250 cheapies instead of the cutting edge tech. Enough of us do that, and eventually the computer industry would have to abandon its current marketing ploy of "cutting edge" hyper-expensive toys. Maybe then computers really will be available to the poor also, or at least more available then they are now.

Douglas Hesse reading: Douglas Hese provides an apologia for old-fashioned essay writing, which he sees as involving more critical thought and analysis, in contrast with web-writing and threaded electronic discussion, which functions through non-linear linkage rather than careful exposition and ordered thought. He traces the tradition of an essay back to Montaigne's essai, and suggests that as a genre, it might eventually fade away--though he hopes not. I would suggest that the essay is far older than Hesse gives it credit; though Montaigne's essai may have popularized that style of writing for the modern, post-Enlightenment academy, I think that writings as far back as St. Augustine's Civitas Dei would probably would be considered essays also, though focused on history and theology as much as personal thought, or the writings that Petrarch produces on his journeys through the Italian mountains, which all show self-reflection, critique, and analysis. He dismisses some narrative writing as "occasional confession" (39) a trope which allows writers to explore their locations within cultures, rather than systematic analysis of the self. Again, I think of St. Augustine and the peach in the Confessions--which most certainly does not fall neatly into the suggested category. It doesn't explore his location within a culture, so much as provide an in-depth, careful analysis of his own motivations, thinking through the impulse toward evil. That's part of an essay, not a mere trope. The essay, as a writing genre, has a virility and resonance that has lasted centuries, and it has survived the emergence of many new writing genres over the past two thousand years. It's not just a recent acquisition within the last few centuries, as Hesse suggests with Montaigne; rather it precedes the Enlightenment by some time, and due to this longevity, I don't think it's at risk of vanishing now. Yes, as Hesse notes, the Web functions differently than essays. Web pages evolve "by accretion, not substitution or critique" (40). But that doesn't mean it will supplant the essay. Just because a hammer is different from a saw, and works in a different way, doesn't mean the hammer will replace the saw, and that carpenters everywhere will forget what the saw is for and be crippled. They are two different things, not one a replacement for the other. He laments that fact that so many web-pages function by juxtaposition and lists, rather than critiques or "deep thinking" about specific issues. I say that's fine, and not really a threat to the essay. It's okay if Webpages function like grocery lists or tables of content. The very fact they are so different in function will ensure that the essay becomes all the more important, providing a place for thought and reflection and harder thinking.

Cooper reading: Finally, Cooper's essay involving MUDs and anonymous discussion, reminded me a great deal of my experiences as an undergraduate student participating in a literature/creative writing class in which the students had anonymous class discussions online using daedalus interchange. To a certain extent, my teacher followed a "non-interventionist" philosophy akin a bit to what he advocates in the essay, not reining in conversation too much, given students freedom to speak. It seemed to work okay, though I was a bit annoyed with the students who didn't take the discussion seriously (with handles like "Phil Laysheo" and stuff like that, you can imagine the intellectual level of the conversation. The teacher's only response was, "Phil, your nickname sucks." He took no other steps to bring hecklers and jokesters into line). The other students still successfully carried on a discussion online, so perhaps his choice was rigiht. Still, looking back on it, the community as a whole didn't have much power to discipline members who breached what the rest of us would consider common rules of etiquette. Since the teacher was the one running the list, there was no way to "toad" the offending party, as Cooper mentions in his essay. Far from empowering students by taking a hands--off policy to let students use their own voice, is it possible that the inability to censor a disruptive influence in a on-line community might also be disempowering in a different way? It empowers the offending student to really speak his mind, but it also disempowers other students from doing anything other than responding with similar scorn to a disruptive influence.

Works Cited:

1. ISOC Internet Society. "A Brief History of the Internet." Leiner, Barry M., et al, eds. http://www.isoc.org/internet-history/brief.html

2. Selfe, Cynthia. "CCCC/98 Keynote Address PREVIEW: Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention." http://www.ncte.org/forums/selfe/.

3. Cooper, Marilyn M. "Postmodern Possibilities in Electronic Conversations." Passions, Pedagogies, and Twenty-first Century Technologies. Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe, eds. Utah State Univ. Press, 1999. 140-60.




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