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The Rise and Swift Fall of Cyber Literacy by John Markoff from the _New York Times_, March 13, 1994 In the early days of the information revolution, writers, readers and book lovers of all sorts ominously predicted that the rise of technology would spell the death of literacy. Then they discovered the word processor, and the typewriter went the way of the quill pen. Maybe technology wasn't so bad after all. When the literati discovered they could use modems to link their computers to networks and send their words flashing around the world, acceptance gave way to ecstasy. In a world increasingly dominated by MTV, Nickelodeon and CNN, people began to speak of a new literacy. Now the Internet, the network of networks that has become all the rage, is being hailed as a way to resurrect the epistolary culture that existed before the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and television. With the convenience of E-mail will come megabyte correspondences as rich as those of Abˇlard and Hˇloise or Gustave Flaubert and George Sand. Internet discussion groups with names like "rec.arts.books" will be like Gertrude Stein's literary salon, except that anyone can join. Well, for a while, anyway. It's true that the Net has opened up a world of correspondence to anyone who wants to participate. But all good renaissances must come to an end. To the true techies, there is something rather quaint about people using all this cutting-edge technology to communicate by pressing lots of little buttons with letters printed on them -- and then reading the results one line at a time. Computer experts talk about what they call bandwidth -- roughly speaking, how much information you can funnel through a line. With the coming of fiberoptics and faster computers, bandwidth will multiply, leading to the spread of multimedia technologies like digital video, audio and video teleconferencing. People who like to type at each other may again become like an endangered species as society sees the decline of textual literacy a second time. "In the next decade, electronic mail is dead," said Paul Saffo, a researcher at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. He believes that text will become little more than a device to annotate video communications. While today most video teleconferences require expensive electronic gear and special rooms, the cost of digital video and audio is falling so rapidly that cameras and microphones will soon be standard components of office personal computers. Sending a snippet of video mail down the hall or across the country will be easier than tapping out a message on a keyboard. Will anybody want to send letters anymore? It is some consolation to recall that literacy itself -- the old-fashioned, low-bandwidth kind -- arose from new technologies. Perhaps, some like to venture, the new technologies will give rise to a new kind of literacy in which a literate person will be expected to be at least as familiar with great issues, melodies and rhythms as with great words. It was the invention of the telegraph and the rise of the modern newspaper printing press that created mass literacy in the second half of the 19th century. In the 1850's only 5 percent of the soldiers in a British military regiment could read, said Michael Hawley, a professor at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By the turn of the century, the number had risen to 85 percent. "Since then, and with the advent of television, radio and telephone, we've seen measurable declines in textual literacy," he said. Mr. Hawley sees the rise of computer networks as a powerful democratizing force. "In the past, producing information for broadcast media has required so many resources to become a George Lucas that there can only be a few each century," he said. The Internet is turning that upside down. "In the future everyone will be able to contribute their useful bit," he said. But is a world in which everyone becomes a publisher -- whether of words or of images -- an ideal one? Carla Hesse, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, sees the Internet -- with its millions and millions of electronic publishers -- as a throwback to the anarchy of the French Revolution. "Publishing in the traditional paper world is both a form of stability and also a fixed memory for our society," she said. We like to think we can put a certain amount of credence in what we read in a newspaper, magazine or book because it was written and edited according to some standards. The question, of course, is who gets to set the standards. French revolutionaries like Condorcet experimented with absolute freedom of the press during the first years of the Revolution. But after a deluge of anonymous publications of dubious veracity, the revolutionaries revised their dreams of totally deregulated, authorless free exchange. By 1793, Ms. Hesse said, legislation emerged to hold authors accountable for what they published. Today, she believes, the mistakes of the French Revolution are being repeated. On the Internet, it is possible to publish anonymously or pseudonymously and more widely than ever before. As a result of the responsibility for organizing information shifts from the writer to the reader. How can you know what to believe? "This is a time of great danger," she said. When the samizdat includes digital video, which can be seamlessly altered and rearranged, the threat is only compounded. Some experts believe the next stage of the information revolution will be so cataclysmic that new forms of literacy will emerge. Several years ago, researchers at the Institute for Research on Learning, in California, found that when students from a poor neighborhood in East Palo Alto were given video editing tools, they could tell stories about their lives that they never would have been able to express in words. Some enthusiasts even speak, a little grandiosely, of a "posttextual literacy." "Clearly we're going to lose certain things and gain others," said John Seeley Brown, the director of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. "We're moving toward a new literacy. The typewriter shaped our current view of literacy. Now we're finding new computer tools that honor visual/audio thinking as opposed to textual thinking." Television is for a passive audience. Digital video, with vast possibilities for manipulating images, exercises the mind. "Today people think of print as the only kind of writing," said Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine in San Francisco. "There will be a different kind of literacy based on a melange of digital information -- the entire stream of all the things that flows into our mind from our computers."