June 1997


Digital Literacy = Doin' Stuff on the Net

Book Review: Digital Literacy
by Paul Gilster
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
276 pages, indexed
ISBN 0-471-16520-4

Reviewed by John K. Horberg

In the past few months, I've read more than my fill of books and articles on communication technology, and I think I've learned something about recognizing the value of such texts. One thing I know is that whether I agree with the views of a given author has nothing to do with whether I find the book worthwhile. When it comes to critical thinking, a book that you dislike is every bit as helpful as one you love. And such is the case with Paul Gilster's Digital Literacy.

The premise of Digital Literacy is that the Internet offers a whole new world -- one with radically improved ways of working and living. Gilster promises to press us into critically examining that world before deciding whether and how to adopt it. His thesis is that the Net is an inherently participatory, democratic and community-building medium, rather than a passive and isolating one like TV. Thus, Gilster is excited by what he calls digital literacy: "the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers."

Early on, Gilster insists that on-line folks are more likely than most to share information and respond to others' requests due to "the kind of electronically enabled altruism that the Net has always promoted." This is in sharp contrast to my classmate Joe Downing's research, in which he is hard pressed for reasons why people in electronic environments would be motivated to share what they know. It also conflicts with my own experience: I have found that people often do not respond to e-mail -- that electronic requests for information are easy to ignore, perhaps because of the facelessness that Gilster embraces as promoting participatory democracy.

Further, the interactivity that Gilster boasts of (mostly the ability to e-mail any information provider) seems to me a prime example of false participation. Gilster is correct in noting that traditional means of responding to an author are cumbersome and carry no guarantee of response. But it's hard to imagine that it's any different when I can click a few keys and dash off a letter to praise, criticize or request information from an author. Gilster's point is that the sense of community prevalent on the Net encourages providers to reply to any reader response, but does it really happen that way?

In short, Digital Literacy is kind of a "Vee are going to PUMP... YOU... UP!" book. Gilster's goal is to get you excited about using the Net. As such, Gilster is a cheerleader: Digital Literacy acknowledges criticisms, but does not dig deeply into them. The book constitutes a wish list in that it champions aspects of the technology -- real time video, audio files, telephony -- that, if less than 1% of the world has access to the Web at all, perhaps only 1% of those who are connected can use.

Still, he is successful in creating an air of excitement and anticipation around the electronic age. If you are wondering what exactly you might want to use the Net for, this book is an excellent source of ideas and background.

But Gilster also incorporates frequent threats that we must become digitally literate in order to be able to hold down everyday jobs: "The boss wants you in Seattle tomorrow and you'd better be able to access the Net to deliver your report. Can you reach his or her electronic mailbox armed only with laptop and phone jack?" (13). Half brandishing a stick and half holding out his succulent bone, Gilster seems to be calling us like dogs to the dish: First, "Here boy, come on!" And if that doesn't work, "Dammit, get over here!"

As a result, Gilster's stated theme of thinking critically is quickly lost. Yes, he admits, the technology comes with dangers and concerns, but he is also very soothing and sanguine in his portrayal of what the Internet will mean to you. He smoothes out the bumps in "the road ahead." That is, he does not press hard on any potential criticisms -- readers need to do that for themselves.

A single piece of circular thinking in the "Introduction" drives home the point that Gilster is not serious when he asks readers to be critical of the Internet and its place in our world: "If this network truly is a revolution in the way we communicate -- and it is -- then it should stand up to your severest scrutiny." The point denies the need for critical thought entirely: If it is given that the Internet will withstand scrutiny, then the only reason for reflection seems to be to set ourselves at ease -- certainly not to uncover deeper problems.

But the Net does not stand up to my criticisms. Much of the stuff I receive from the listserv to which I subscribe is the same sort of business that I find so objectionable about academia: people blowing their own horns, boosting themselves by putting down others, responding to the whole group with what should be personal responses, all apparently in order to show off how much they know.

Thus, I remain critical of Internet culture and productivity. Gilster enthusiastically cites that "more new information was created in the past 30 years than had appeared in the previous 5,000." This is precisely the sort of thing that worries me -- treating information as if it were a measurable, valuable-in-itself, commodity. Is raw information a measure of well-being or happiness? Is it information that will raise us to the next higher level of existence? No! As Neil Postman likes to say, our inability to solve the serious problems of the world is patently not due to any lack of information.

Perhaps I'm unable, as Gilster asks, to "punch through" my old ways of thinking. After all, a colleaugue of mine playfully accused me of being "stuck in the old paper paradigm." But I can't see Gilster's subliminal suggestion that using the Internet itself is the activity in which we should want to engage.

For example, I am typing this review up on my Macintosh (after having written most of the text sitting in bed, Truman Capote style) not because I want to be using the computer, but because I need simply to digitize my text. The computer for me is a tool by which I achieve some desired end, not an end in itself. Likewise, for me, time on the Internet is not life itself, but a discrete activity which allows me to perform specific tasks.

In sharp contrast, Gilster's enjoyable narratives promote sitting in front of the computer as a pleasurable and intellectually stimulating activity -- of participating in the grand evolution of what the Net is to become. But the pleasant vision he creates ("you click a different hyperlink to an unknown destination and, having explored that site, move from there to another") just doesn't jive with my experience, at least not for anything but purely leisure activities on the Web.

Gilster describing his daily wanderings through the medium sounds rather like the 1960's show, "The Time Tunnel," with the heroes zapped to a different time and place each episode. They never know where they're going, but something interesting is happening at each place they end up in. He frequently uses phrases like, "I reenter the Web to find myself in..." evoking a feeling of personal wonderment at the sites he happens to access.

It is clear that Gilster is taken with the sheer beauty of the Web. His description of a typical day on the Net, logging in first thing in the morning, evokes a romantic image of waking up -- The warming hum of the computer, images and colors taking shape on the screen suggests the sights and sounds of the world gradually bringing one into a waking state. Gilster makes it seem as if the Net itself is the real world that he enters and leaves, with the physical world just a place in which he waits to log on again.

Gilster's points about the beauty of self-publishing are well taken with me. Certainly, I fell less like I've done nothing over the past four years, simply by having created my own web site, with some of my work and research on-line for anybody to read as they like. But his descriptions echo Gibsonian visions of what cyberspace looks like: On the WWW, he writes, "Each image, each header, corresponds to an HTML setting inserted with a jeweler's precision by the programmer who created this Web page."

Similarly, Gilster does a nice job of indicating the demands that working on the Net place on the user. The more I think about it, the sharper and more astute this point about the WWW being demanding seems to be. Too often, I suspect, we expect computers to flat out make life easy for us -- people as the masters and computers as our servants. Gilster's quietly pointing to the opposite throughout the book is one of his strongest points.

Still, Gilster delights in the complexity with which he surrounds himself. He describes in detail his system for categorizing messages and information sources that he wants to keep. His hierarchy of folders and sub-folders, all appropriately titled and subtitled, reminds me of the myth of perfect control that computers are sometimes (perhaps not often enough) criticized for luring us into. The whole system seems very complicated and demanding, and it seems inevitable that once we get all this data stored neatly away... well, then what?

Having abandoned, early on, his idea that we should thoroughly critique the very idea of a World-Wide Web, Gilster turns to evaluating individual information sources instead. Chapter 4, "Content Evaluation," makes the same pair of points I focused on in my Technical and Professional Communication course this past semester. That is, when it is easy to make a fine-looking document, when all documents look equally professional, then 1) it's up to the writer to incorporate the increasingly minute details that spell out "credibility;" and 2) it falls on the reader to either develop critical interpretation skills or to suffer being mis-informed.

As interesting as this is, Gilster dips very lightly into the realm of rhetoric. Apart from scant bits of advice -- "Is the tone scholarly?" -- the sort of critical thinking Gilster encourages lies entirely in the process of evaluating data sources and examining the links a particular document makes or doesn't make.

The proof of electronic data's credibility for Gilster, is in a document's source, its correctness, and it's links, rather than in the text itself. Content, it seems, is a separate topic. And that only makes sense, since this is not a rhetoric book -- although it makes the title of the book that much less clear. Digital literacy, as best I can tell, means simply being able to do stuff on the Internet.

Of course, the correctness of data obtained from electronic sources can be vital, and should be verified when it is important to do so. But if, as Gilster recommends, I double-check my electronically-obtained Costa Rican currency exchange rate "in a bank or by a call to the public library," then what was the use of having found that information on-line at all? Why not go to the credible and reliable source in the first place?

Gilster does note the tendency to simply dump content on the Web, and that many Web sites suffer for it, but says almost nothing about what makes quality content. Even in the following passage, Gilster is talking about the use of hyperlinks within one's text -- where you can go from a given page -- not the content of any one site. Note especially his use of the term, "page designers" rather than "authors" below:

This is the paradox of hypertext -- it establishes links to banks of information, leading to the assumption that ideas are always backed by evidence. And a hypertext discussion can be manipulated by the choice of those links. What appear to be inevitable connections to related facts are actually choices made by page designers whose views are reflected in their selection of links.

Gilster rightly points out that web sites tell readers what is significant by the links they offer. This to the contrary of the post-modern view of electronic communications and hypertext, which suggests that the beauty of such media is that no one tells the reader what is to be considered important. Although Gilster's critical stance toward electronic data is appropriate, it is no more appropriate when applied to the Web than it is to standard print or broadcast media. I think Gilster's message is quite clear, and rather unfortunate. It is the electronic equivalent of Plato's (and more recently, the Unabomber's) theme that the person skilled in rhetoric (in this case, the person who is digitally literate) is going to be more successful than one who is knowledgeable in the subject matter.

Finally, a couple of specific points in Digital Literacy seem problematic to me:

First, I'm bothered by Gilster's description of how his Agent software picks through newsgroups, screening out subjects of individual messages and submissions from "people who's postings I've learned not to read." While this capability sure sounds useful -- a personalized filtering of data to suit one user's needs -- it also brings to mind fear of agents hacking their way through the Web. It further smacks of artificial posturing -- of including key phrases to get my stuff brought up on your screen by sifting through your filters. It's also remindful of the new procedure of writing resumes specifically to be scanned -- including key words designed to get your resume called up on someone's screen. Is this a problem, or just a new set of skills that we need to develop to be effective in the electronic info. world?

I'm similarly troubled by a touch of what objected to in his review of Bill Gates' little book. That is, a hint that all this time on the web is really only for the wealthy leisure class. Gilster makes frequent references to the condition of his portfolio: "My stock in Venezuela may be in trouble." Little hints of this class distinction appear throughout the book. In one case Gilster notes that his "own [financial] positions in Hong Kong have grown incrementally over the years." In another place he points out his stock ownership in companies like Boeing. This makes one wonder what the rest of us are supposed to be doing on the Net.

Despite my criticisms, Gilster's accounts of gathering information from the Web for his job are compelling. At times he makes me think, "That sounds like fun; I wish I could do that too." Digital Literacy has precious little to do with literacy in the academic sense, but the book is a good read -- interesting and worthwhile, both for what Gilster says the Internet is and what it might become.

All-in-all, Gilster provides an interesting framework for thinking about the WWW. He doesn't tell you how to use it, or even what you should use it for. (That, in itself, is rather refreshing.) What he does do is gather an impressive and non-jargony set of topics for thought or discussion, as to how the WWW might grow and further involve us and our lives -- its place in society and our daily lives -- how we might think about and perceive our own places in the world around us. Whether you agree or disagree with his view points, Gilster at least provides plenty of food for thought.

John K. Horberg (, is happily, and regretfully, quitting Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after four years of doctoral work. He doesn't see any point in doing the homework his committee requires to get his ABD status and plans to struggle along the best he can without his degree.

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