Wednesday, December 10, 2008

People of the Screen, People of the Book

I just finished reading an amazing article in The New Atlantis titled “
People of the Screen.” Go ahead and read that first. I'll wait.

Okay, now, this article continues a battle that was being waged when I was in tech writing grad school (1999-2002): do computers and other electronic gadgets undermine or redefine what it means to be “literate?” I find myself in a unique position relative to the People of the Book and the People of the Screen, as I am a user of both.

The author discusses the cognitive differences between reading on a computer and reading a book. Book reading is obviously more linear. Books have a beginning, middle, and end, and they proceed in that order without a lot of noise or special effects. Computer reading is more like scanning or “reading” the TV. The text is there, but so are advertisements, music, animations, and hyperlinks, begging for your attention.

Cognitively, book reading is a very different activity from “surfing.” Book reading is quieter and requires a certain passivity as one allows another person—the author—to string words together in order to create a story and (if you have the imagination for it) images in your mind. The reader is the student, following a trail laid out by someone else, and can have the pleasures of “getting away from it all” or “escaping” to another world without a lot of effort. The reader might expand their personal intellectual or emotional horizons or learn something new by absorbing the ideas of another person.

The hypertext reader is operating within a created environment, as the book reader is, but has more control over the flow of events. Hyperlink A leads to Hyperlink B leads to Hyperlink C, and the original flow of text is disrupted by a reader-directed search for specific information. Video game players, too, operate within an environment created by someone else, and are expected to have much more control and autonomy than a book reader. Goals are established externally, more or less, and the player must reach those goals by trial and error. The fundamental difference (usually) between video gaming and hypertext fiction is that the visual environment is created for the player, much as movies imagine a book author’s “world” for the audience member.

My primary concerns about this shift from books to computers are their effects on basic and
technical literacy, writing, and philosophy. Hypertext is, perhaps, the ultimate revenge of Jacques Derrida and the Deconstructionists, who have sought to question many or all of the assumptions put into writing (mostly by Western white males) by “deconstructing” every single term in a text (however you define it)*. I got one of two B’s in grad school partly because of my visceral distaste for this sort of thinking and my willingness to state so to the professor. Technical writers, especially, need to be very particular about the words they use to do their jobs, as technical results (or even lives) might be on the line if the wrong word or word order is used. So to subject a technical writer to the notion that the true meanings of words are problematic—and indeed, can be willfully or playfully messed with—is not a welcome one.

[* Sidebar Explanation: For example, a documentation writer might say that a technical document is a success if anyone picking up the document could follow the instructions and come up with the same results as anyone else (e.g. a recipe). A Deconstructionist, thinking him or herself inherently cleverer than the empirically “simple” tech writer, would ask, “Whom do you mean by anyone? What are your educational, economic, geographic, age-ist, racial, sexual, or political assumptions about that ‘anyone’? See? Your simple document isn’t written for ‘just anyone,’ is it?” And so the postdoc Deconstructionist gallops off merrily to write another monograph, happy with the chaos and extra paperwork they’ve caused for the tech writer. Meanwhile, the tech writer is left with the chore of adding a carefully worded disclaimer to the document to answer the Deconstructionist’s questions, and then hoping like hell that the reader, however defined and explained, can still do the basic task, which is to follow the damned directions.]

Now to keep myself honest and cut the Deconstructionists a little slack, I do write in hypertext, especially on this blog, wherein I link to various places on the Internet to make or amplify my points on this or that subject. It is also obviously true that I qualify as both regularly and digitally literate. However, I was just plain literate first, and that experience shapes my approach to blog writing, which is to say, I write as a linear text writer. My hyperlinks are more like footnotes, not deliberate links meant to “complicate” or “decontextualize” my words. If anything, my links reinforce my meaning.

Anyhow, there’s a philosophical dimension to Deconstructionism that is often overlooked because it seems so distant from real-world concerns. But notice my earlier distaste. What was it that I found so distasteful? Simple: nihilism. I don’t like the notion that “we don’t truly know what words mean.” If words can mean anything (“
It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is,” sayeth Clinton the Sage), then they might as well mean nothing. I believe that words can have somewhat consistent meanings across time—for instance, I’ve read translations of 2,500-year-old Greek and Latin authors and managed to enjoy the experience without a great deal of turmoil. If you don’t believe that words can have shared meanings across cultures or across time, then the Wizards of Smart who write dictionaries and textbooks and “set the intellectual tone” of the language will be the ones who decide what words mean based on pure politics.

So how does this relate to hypertext? Two words:
Google Bombing. As Wikipedia (a bastion of hypertext if ever there was one) puts it,

A Google bomb (or "link bomb") is Internet slang for a certain kind of attempt to raise the ranking of a given page in results from a Google search, often with humorous or political intentions.
Overload the Internet with your own alternative meanings, and people start to believe it. It’s the 21st century version of “
The Big Lie,” which Wikipedia puts thusly:

The Big Lie (German: Großen Lüge) is a propaganda technique. It was defined by Adolf Hitler in his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf as a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously".
Lastly, there’s my earlier
concern about trying to educate children about math or science using hypertext or video games. Can it be done? I remain to be convinced. Just as video game playing requires a different cognitive attitude from passive reading, so playing around the internet has a different approach than doing long division, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other forms of math.

So to take my revenge on the 21st century, I think I’ll turn off the computer and spend the rest of the night reading a book. Sounds like a fabulous way to spend a quiet evening.

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