Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 16


Mo' Better Questions

by Nancy Kaplan

Like the stories other people tell about technology and social change, my stories about the history of the Internet and my introduction to computer-mediated communications may obscure the important observation that some people created computing and networking devices, in just these forms and not others, that some people profit from their creation in just these forms and not others, and that the driving forces may have little to do with what is technologically feasible and a great deal to do with what is competitively advantageous in the current marketplace.

At moments when we are tempted to argue from technological necessity, from some essence or inherent logic of machines, we would do well to remember that the ancient Greeks built steam engines, but only to power toys, that the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder but only to amuse and delight, and that the first printed text appeared not in 15th century Europe, but in 9th century Korea, where it apparently failed to fulfill its compelling logic.

Because the cultural narratives we tell about technological change tend to focus on the technologies themselves -- as if our tools came to us all unbidden and unasked for, we have tended to frame our questions about relations between technologies and culture as if they were questions about engines and the vehicles they power: how, we might ask, does nuclear energy differ from diesel fuel as a source of power for a submarine? What elements of the submarine will have to be re-engineered? In the same vein, we ask: How will the computer affect literacy? What aspects of literacy will have to be re-formed?

Framed that way, such questions distort the matter at hand, for the relations between the multiple literacies of late twentieth century, post-industrial culture and the multiple material objects, attendant practices, routines and instruction sets constituting what we lump under the heading computer are exceedingly complex and interdependent. Neither the practices constituting literacy nor those constituting computing provide a stable anchor for historical analysis since both are constantly moving, shifting in response to each other's pressures.

Typically, accounts of the transformation from print literacy to electronic literacy begin with descriptions of differences, as I have done in the part of my essay called "Academic Dispute." Electronic texts, we say, differ from printed texts in certain salient ways. These differences, in turn, promote differences in the structures of texts or in the organization of textual commerce. Thus George Landow, in his seminal work on hypertext and literary theory, begins by describing textual logics, by seeing the theoretical work of literary critics Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida flowering in the pragmatic and instrumental work of systems designers like Andries van Dam and Theodor Nelson: the textual logic of poststructuralist theory -- the demise of the hierarchically higher author, the empowerment of the reader, the constant slippage of signifiers against signifieds -- finds itself enacted in the operational logic of a hypertext system (p. 2).

The compelling logic of hypertextual writing, however, has so far failed to produce many of these "open" texts -- some would argue that no genuine examples of the genre yet exist. Which is not to say that they never will, but only to acknowledge the powerful social forces arrayed against such a change. What prevents electronic textuality, its politexts and its hypertexts, from fulfilling its promise -- or making good on its threat -- we might reasonably conclude, is us. We, the elite keepers of high print culture, wittingly or unwittingly the allies of Postman and Tuman, earn our livings by the printed word. Our knowledge-making communities, no less in the humanities than in the social and physical sciences, operate through the gatekeeping functions of peer review, itself in turn dependent on stable and authored texts. Indeed, the most successful electronic texts for literati have been those that replicate what one hypertext critic calls "the full functionality of print." Scholarly journals such as PostModern Culture and the Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture differ from their printed relatives only because they are (apparently) free to their subscribers. Cynthia Selfe and Paul Meyer 's study of power relations in an unmoderated electronic discussion group (just the sort of electronic discourse often touted as leveling, democratizing, and respectful of cultural diversity) turns out to replicate the power relations of print and of professional life before electronic discourse.

What we need to be thinking about and doing ....

This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

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