October 1997

Many Words Do Not Equal Much Content

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

Reviewed by Ulla K. Bunz

Being literate means to be able to read, write, and comprehend. According to Paul Gilster, author of Digital Literacy, being digitally literate means to be able "to access networked computer resources and use them" (p. 1).

Digital Literacy is a book in eight chapters about the Internet. Gilster attempts to go beyond other books covering the same topic. He acknowledges the Internet as an evolving technology which will have important impacts on society. He defines core competencies the user needs to use the Internet and the information provided effectively. According to Gilster, the heart of digital literacy is "a willingness to adapt our skills to an evocative new medium" (p. xii).

While reading Digital Literacy, two main questions come to mind: 1) Who is the target audience, and 2) what, exactly, is the author's message?

Apparently, Gilster tries to aim at every literate person. His writing style is simple. Few technical terms are used, and these few are explained or defined. Some of the information Gilster provides is very basic. In these cases, he seems to aim at Donna Dumb, the person who has yet to experience the Net. Other paragraphs are only interesting to Sarah Smart, who surfs and participates actively on the Internet, for example through complex Web pages, online video conferences, or extensive research. What about the rest of the book, and what about the rest of the readers?

The largest proportion of Digital Literacy is aimed at the Mitch Mediocres of this world. Mitch has limited experience with the Internet and is interested enough in improving his skills to buy and read this book. Unfortunately, Mitch Mediocre will be disappointed too.

The first two chapters are interesting for all three groups of readers, Donna Dumb, Mitch Mediocre, and Sarah Smart. Gilster defines terms, gives a short introduction to the Internet's history, reports contradictions about the Net's influence on society. He compares the development of the Internet to the invention of the printing press. In both cases, he points out, people first felt threatened by the new technology. Then they became fascinated, even before realizing the new technology's full potential.

Gilster writes in everyday language. In times he uses a narrative style so the reader gets the impression of being told a story. However, at this point the second question comes into focus: What, exactly, is Gilster's message?

The inlet of Digital Literacy claims that this book "isn't a book about how to get around the Internet." Nevertheless, Gilster spends over a hundred pages telling you just that, how he surfs the Internet. His pretense is to inform the reader about the endless possibilities the Internet provides. Yet, Gilster makes a rhetorical mistake that spoils Digital Literacy for the majority of his potential readers.

In Chapter 2 Gilster introduces the quintessence of Digital Literacy: Critical thinking. "Developing the habit of critical thinking and using network tools to reinforce it is the most significant of the network's core competencies" (p. 33). First Gilster encourages his readers to think critically. Then he takes off on an odyssey without return. Endlessly he surfs the oceans of the Internet. Based on Gilster's personal interests the reader is dragged along through an entire day of his click, click, click. Apparently, Gilster doesn't realize that through pointing out specific pages on the Internet he limits the Net down to those pages, instead of showing its endless resources. Many of Gilster's good ideas and implications are drowned in this sea of personal interest. Useful information for the reader is scattered in bits and pieces over 100 pages. Only a very patient and concentrated reader with Internet skills will be able to pick up something valuable once in a while. The best advice for Donna Dumb and Mitch Mediocre, therefore, is to skip Chapters 3, 4, and 5 entirely.

Chapters 6 and 7 provide mainly background information. Gilster states his opinion about topics such as free speech, the future of the printing press, effective search methods, and new Internet tools. Some of the best paragraphs deal with copyright questions and possible solutions for charging fees per Internet page viewed.

Finally, in Chapter 8, Gilster attempts a summary and conclusion. Unfortunately, Gilster's conclusions were implied in the first two chapters already. They are very simple: Think critically about what you are reading, no matter which source you are using. If you don't know how to read--in this case reading stands for using the Internet--learn how to do it. In case you fail to learn basic Internet skills, you will become part of the digital illiterate. Even though digital technologies will continue to develop, other media tools will always be available to provide you with the information most needed. You simply won't belong to the elite. As to society in general, Gilster concludes: "If there is one thing we can assume, it's that technology will not vanish because some of us raise questions about its impact on society" (p. 259).

In conclusion, the attentive reader can find answers to the two questions posed earlier. First, Gilster is not quite sure himself which audience he targets. Therefore, he tries to write a book for everybody and fails. Second, the main message in Digital Literacy is to be critical about information provided. This is not a new idea.

Gilster claims that "online chat is conversation without context" (p. 220). He really meant to say that an author without audience and message should not waste words. Unfortunately, this is what he has done with half of his book.

As a last piece of advice, Digital Literacy is best used as an index book. Look up specific terms of interest, and read the corresponding paragraphs between subway stops. Unfortunately, the largest part of Digital Literacy fails to hold you attention for much longer than that anyway.

Ulla K. Bunz (

Copyright © 1997 by Ulla K. Bunz. All Rights Reserved.

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