Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 33


by Nancy Kaplan

What Myron Tuman has to say ...

On this page, you will find extensive passages from Myron Tuman's recent book, Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. I have chosen these excerpts because they provide the context for ideas and quotations to which my essay, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print," refers. Thus, I attempt to allow Professor Tuman to speak for himself, to represent his own views in his own way. Some of the links in the text will take you to the bibliography while others will take you to some portion of my essay.

Tuman, Myron. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 41-43.

How different things are as we approach the end of the twentieth century, with practically all aspects of print literacy, and in turn, the industrial culture on which it is based, under attack. Verticality now loses its spiritual dimension, its association with the sublime, and knowledge is instead associated with hierarchical forms of governance, what Harlan Cleveland calls 'vertical structures of command and control' (p. 61). Truth is still above the masses, but it is now conceived, not as something rarefied or spiritual but as a trade secret at the top of a corporate pyramid -- what separates holders of 'truth' from the people below is not knowledge but institutional greed and power. Meanwhile, instead of Faustian man, committed to an endless, solitary quest for knowledge, the new age, Bolter speculates, is marked by the programmer, someone whose work at every step makes him or her aware of the physical limits of electronic time and space. The programmer, Bolter contends, does not make bold new discoveries but instead subtly manipulates finite parts within a finite world: 'He remains in the confined logical universe of his machine, rearranging the elements of that universe to suit the current problem' ((1984, p. 223). This programmer, this student of a new online literacy, is exempt from Knoblauch and Brannon's imperative 'to make valuable statements about the meaning of his own experience' (p. 12), to probe the unexplored territory of his own psyche....

The new world of online literacy replaces the search for psychological depth of print literacy with a rediscovery of the creative power of craft and manipulation. With the ascendancy of online literacy we can expect specific changes in literacy education as well as broad changes in cultural values. No longer will it be possible, for example, to continue Knoblauch and Brannon see as 'founded on this perpetual search, not on authoritarian premises and unassailable dogmas of antiquity' (p. 52), should continually produce critiques of its own assumptions. Yet the ever-growing attack on print literacy, the rejection of the symbolic, transformative power of the literate text, as articulated in the writings of Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, David Olson, and Walter Ong, among others, is more than perpetual revisionism. Instead it is a clear symptom of the emergence of a new post-industrial sensibility, one that rejects the status of texts as higher or more logical expressions of symbolic knowledge, texts as the embodiment of history, philosophy, literature, science, and other ways of understanding the world not immediately supported by the traditions, often the prejudices, of the group. For industrial culture, it was precisely the ideal, innovative, anomalous component of this symbolic content that was responsible for the immense value afforded literacy. While educators may have discussed literacy in terms of transcription skills, it was always the power of the text, as an extension of the transformative power of technology, to change both the individual and the world that was at issue.

Tuman, Myron. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 53-66.

On April 7, 1817, three enterprising young publishers called upon the great English poet and scholar, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, hoping to convince him to accept the position of editor of a new encyclopedia project.... While neither his health nor his temperament proved suitable for such a project, Coleridge did agree to write a 'Treatise on Method', to be used as the Introduction to the encyclopedia, in which he outlined the principles for organizing all human knowledge, a problem of increasing interest today given the huge database capacity of modern computers and ... the seemingly geometrical increases in information, although at the time, one that did not seem to have much to do with literacy.

For the literate mind prior to the advent of computers, the central problem of human knowledge had to do, not with finding one's way through a forest of information, but with achieving genuine insight, usually expressed in terms of vertical movement. The original thinker gains a deeper (or higher) understanding, mainly through undertaking a more intense analysis of a single given situation or creative work -- in literary study, for example, a reader undertakes successively more intense readings of a poem or short story, just as a writer in turn works more intensely at producing poems and short stories that reward such readings. In such a world the most valuable knowledge is not some huge concordance of ideas but the searing thought of a single philosophical or poetical mind, a thinker whose magnum opus (if only a single mathematical theorem) may lie unpublished, even undiscovered, for generations but, due to its brilliance, will eventually come to light, exerting its influence on readers, without public fanfare or the hype of publishers. It is the intensity of the writing experience -- literally its distance (up or down) from a common baseline--that assures that a truly exceptional work will be found by any reader capable of climbing the necessary heights (or plummeting the depths). In true romantic spirit, the great work should remain hidden until the reader, as if on a quest is spiritually ready to find it....

Best known as a Romantic poet and literary critic, Coleridge was also a product of an older rationalist tradition that was preoccupied by the larger question of the general structure of all human knowledge: how does one move from one experience or piece of information to the next? How does one structure the totality of knowledge so that individuals can use it for their own distance purposes? .... [H. G] Wells' solution, like Coleridge's, is to call for more powerful means of organizing knowledge.... What we need, finally, is not more original thought but 'the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements ... the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory of all mankind (p. 60)....

[Just a small intrusion here: see the Yahoo List for a nascent WWW attempt to structure all Web knowledge.]

The online text is nothing but a database out of which new readers construct paths to meet their specific and individual needs -- it is akin to a board game, a place where many individual pieces are connected by the rules for play. Meanwhile the author of the online text is nothing but the source (often corporate rather than personal) responsible for establishing and maintaining the rules for operating that database. There is no longer any basis for the central notion of print literacy, that literate exchange involves the comprehension of the unity of knowledge or vision represented by structures in either the distant author or the present (and seemingly stable) text.

What there is, instead, is the new notion of the fully engaged reader -- the performer as well as the listener. For its advocates, hypertext is a medium for literate exchange that truly engages students, lifting them out of the passivity and lethargy associated with being only the receivers of other people's prepackaged ideas. It stands in opposition to traditional patterns of learning.... Landow's students in his hypertext-based literature course, Context 32, are asked to do more than follow predetermined links. They are encouraged to add their own comments and their own links to this ever-expanding web of information about English literature. And in wandering through and connecting the links in such a web his students are engaging in the central activity of education -- the development of independent critical thinking....

What remains unclear in all such discussions of hypertext is the connection between the associative thinking of this 'new' literacy and the critical thinking of print literacy. This question, in turn, raises the larger one about the connection between print literacy and online literacy, and here the most obvious and most immediately appealing argument is to see computers as adding to, not reversing, the best that has come before.

Tuman, Myron. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 61-62.

Technology does powerfully affect literacy, but Landow seems only interested in those technologies that enhance (deepen) our experience with print. The more we know about a literary work, or presumably a painting or musical composition, he suggests, the deeper our experience of it. Landow rejects the tension, explicit in New Criticism, and implicit in print literacy generally, between gathering information about the text and having a private, intensely personal experience of it -- hypertext, the ultimate information-gathering tool, thus becomes the ultimate reading environment. His imaginary scenario, however, only masks this tension between conflicting models of reading. While Landow does describe a student reading Great Expectations at a computer terminal -- the opening hypertext screen coinciding with the title-page of the novel, each successive screen representing the next printed page -- using an elaborate hypertext system for such a purpose is a clear exampl

[An annoying editorial intrusion: when was the last time you saw someone practicing the craft of memory at an arts and crafts show?]

The reading and writing of individual texts may also become crafts in the world of online literacy. There the object of exchange will not be the individual text but literature itself, defined as the full extension of the connective and storage capacity inherent in hypertext, what Nelson defines as 'a connected system of documents.' Thus there is for Nelson the literature of Dickens, and the literature of English literature, and even the literature of literature, which is to individual literatures (of Dickens, for instance) as the universe is to the galaxies, hence his term, the docuverse. Reading a Dickens novel on a hypertext system that gives one access to the wider (complete?) literature of Victorian England naturally encourages wider-ranging questions, in a process that reaches far beyond the scope of any one class....

In a world defined by a single literature rather than a multitude of texts, reading becomes essentially a means of finding one's way -- one moves, not ever deeper into a single text in quest of some world-altering hermeneutic understanding, but playfully between texts, from side to side as it were.... Hypertext thus supports the wider contemporary movement away from a serious, introspective, relentlessly psychological (and often Germanic) hermeneutic tradition of interpretation -- one often associated with modernism, despite its unmistakable nineteenth-century romantic origins -- and toward a decidedly more ludic (and often Gallic) postmodern concern with defining reading, and cultural criticism generally, as the play of signs.

Tuman, Myron. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 68-69.

One can hardly question Bolter's sense of the intensity required of a reading of a single hypertext fiction, but consider as well the different sort of problems confronting another hypertext reader -- Landow's imaginary student, Jane, sitting at the computer console preparing to read Great Expectations. It is impossible to deny that many students in George Landow's English literature survey at Brown University profited from using the extensive hypertext system as a means of preparing for classes. Discussions were livelier -- and why shouldn't they be when students had quick and easy access to a range of secondary sources about the texts under consideration? Anyone who has taught literature knows that students are frequently baffled by the complexity and at times stylistic impenetrability of the literary texts themselves, and, consequently, relish all sorts of classroom aids into the materials. One might argue we live in an age that routinely discuss many cultural icons -- from Marx and Freud to Allan Bloom and Alice Walker -- not by reading their works but by reading and, more frequently now, viewing popular discussions about their works. But Jane, faced with the task of actually reading Dickens' novel, must nevertheless plow through approximately 180,000 words of text, some eight and a half hours of intensive labor (at the rate of 360 words a minute), with no guarantee of attaining a satisfactory level of understanding unless her comprehension skills are above average.

Students in Jane's situation, in much larger numbers than any of us care to admit, have long turned to literary guides, simulacra of the texts -- the most visible being the boldly striped Cliff's Notes -- to provide them an easier path through (and, at least as often, around) complex and long literary texts. What Bolter does not consider in his discussion of the experience of reading Joyce's 'Afternoon' is what happens when the story is not a self-contained fictional universe, read by someone interested in having a rich aesthetic experience, but only a tiny part of a vast hypertext network. One where harried and information-driven readers, instead of spending a few hours exploring Joyce's constantly shifting story, can find out the least they need to know more readily by clicking on screens containing background information about Joyce, interactive fiction, and the story itself. The point at issue here is not whether the hypertext environment can support the level of aesthetic reading associated with print literacy, especially for those fully acculturated into the world of print -- but how different the experience of reading the most aesthetically complex hypertext may be for 'readers' in the future who will be fully acculturated into an electronic world, possibly ordinary students of the next century who have no sustained experience of print. Just how likely is it that people for whom reading has become an act defined largely in terms of using the computer either to access needed information on demand or to be entertained by the slam-bang integration of 3-D graphics and CD sound will be willing -- or able -- to sit before a terminal patiently selecting the paths in a single author-designed hypertext in order to have something akin to a traditional literary experience?

We seem to have little idea of just how dynamic (hyperactive?) the computer screen is likely to become once the hardware and software are in place to support real-time video and the wizardry of multimedia. Richard Kearney cites a relevant and troubling, albeit undocumented, statistic: 'that since the arrival of multi-channel press-button TV in the US, less than 50 per cent of American children under the age of 15 have ever watched a single programme from start to finish' (1988, p. 1). [I just can't resist popping in here: if the statistic Tuman cites is undocumented (fabricated? a guess?) then it is not a statistic and cannot be either relevant or troubling. If this is the sort of critical thinking that comes from print literacy's preference for deep study in solitude, I'd say we were due for a change! But perhaps we should get back to the regularly scheduled, authorized voice here, eh?] Some might be tempted to find hope in such numbers, given the dreadful programming on TV, yet 'zapping', as anyone with such a device must realize, has far more to do with pacing than with judgment, more to do, that is, with our exploiting the hypertextual capability of a new online technology in order to assemble a more pleasing (more postmodern?) procession of images. Our ability or willingness to attend closely and for prolonged periods of time to the narrative experiences of others -- the basis of nineteenth-century novel reading and until recently twentieth-century television watching -- is intimately connected to our broader experience of print culture and the inner consciousness that it both demanded and rewarded. A new cultural landscape, one grounded in computer technology, will affect all of us, professors and students alike. All of us, and not just hyperactive adolescents, will zap.

Tuman, Myron. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 65-66.

If any text is, like a hypertext, no more than a collection of fragments, the author becomes no more than that personage charged with collecting and arranging that material. Behind our traditional notion of the author as a unifying force responsible for creating the text ... is not a human being but an historical construct. The future of authorship may have less to do with a single vision of writing defined in terms of invention, creativity, and copyright than with earlier multiple visions. In the thirteenth century, for example, Saint Bonaventura spoke not of one type of producer of books but four: scriptor, one who 'might write the works of others, adding and changing nothing';
compilator, one who 'writes the work of others with additions which are not his own'; commentator, one who 'writes both others' work and his own, but with others' work in principal place, adding his own for purposes of explanation'; and, finally, auctor, one who 'writes both his own work and others' but with his own work in principal place adding others' for purpose of confirmation' (Eisenstein, 1983, p. 84).

All forms of computer-based writing seem to be returning us to a world of multiple notions of authorship, based on multiple notions of texts. The concept of the author, Foucault argues, since the eighteenth century tied it to bourgeois notions of 'individualism and private property' (1984, p. 119) and embodied it in the image of 'a necessary or constraining figure', is in the process of changing like society itself, loosing all connection to an identifiable human form, disappearing as it were into a vast system of writing, the rules that govern what is considered writing. What can change -- including our sense of what it means to be an author -- likely will change, not just as some may have first interpreted Foucault, in some metaphorical sense but in real and practical ways. As with "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

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