The lines of conflict between the two groups I have represented with Bolter and Lanham in one camp and Postman and Tuman in the other are fairly clearly drawn: what one pair sees as promise, the other pair construes as threat. If I belabor the disputes among these men, it is because it is easy to overlook what is actually at issue. Interestingly, both pairs claim that their conclusions derive directly from the inherent technological properties of print and digital media. All four claim to be elucidating the effects of technological arrangements, the impact electronic technologies will have on our culture. But in fact, all of them forecast cultural changes based on cultural ideals, and not simply on the "logics" of the technologies they describe. To illustrate that point quite clearly, let me simply juxtapose a passage from Tuman with a passage from Postman, two critics who for the most part agree that electronic writing technologies bode little good and foster much harm.
As Tuman sees it, employing networked computers in the classroom "shifts the primary focus of literacy away from the self-contained text and toward a new kind of interactive discourse akin to conversation..." (p. 90) .
For Postman, computers in the classroom have the opposite effect: "In introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word. Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility.... Print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy. Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech?" (p. 17)
Although Tuman and Postman generally agree that the loss of print literacy is a grievous but sadly an inevitable one, their accounts of the proximate causes of loss focus on different features of the new environment, the one on the threat from a new or secondary orality, the other on the threat from an ever more individualized, intensive, introspective mode of instruction. How does the same technology lead to such different speculations; how can its logic result in such opposite conclusions?
Of course electronic texts do differ from those one of my friends calls "paper-based data structures," and in ways we can describe. But, I would argue, the technological differences themselves tell only a part of the story of technological and cultural change: by ignoring the social, Bolter and Lanham as well as Tuman and Postman fail to articulate some crucial relations between technologies and cultures.
At the very least, we should define some terms, ask some better questions, and consider carefully how best to talk about the complex relations between technologies and cultural formations.
This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."