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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

"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

"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."

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