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Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness

Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness

by Laura J. Gurak

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The Internet has changed our social spaces, our political and social realities, our use of language, and the way we communicate, all with breathtaking speed. Almost everyone who deals with the Internet and the new world of cyberspace communication at times feels bewildered, dismayed, or even infuriated. In this clear and helpful book, computer communications


The Internet has changed our social spaces, our political and social realities, our use of language, and the way we communicate, all with breathtaking speed. Almost everyone who deals with the Internet and the new world of cyberspace communication at times feels bewildered, dismayed, or even infuriated. In this clear and helpful book, computer communications scholar Laura J. Gurak takes a close look at the critical issues of online communication and discusses how to become literate in the new mass medium of our era.
In cyberspace, Gurak shows us, literacy means much more than knowing how to read. Cyberliteracy means being able to sort fact from fiction, to detect extremism from reasonable debate, and to identify gender bias, commercialism, imitation, parody, and other aspects of written language that are problematic in online communication. Active reading skills are essential in cyberspace, where hoaxes abound, advertising masquerades as product information, privacy is often compromised, and web pages and e-mail messages distort the truth. Gurak analyzes the new language of the Internet, explaining how to prepare for its discourse and protect oneself from its hazards. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the impact of the Internet on the practices of reading and writing and on our culture in general.

Editorial Reviews

Rolf Norgaard
Laura Gurak here captures the critical issues of cyberliteracy.
Jack Selzer
Gurak offers useful information and her own original take on important issues.
Publishers Weekly
Avid e-mailers and zealous Web surfers recognize that the Internet possesses its own linguistic system: grammar and mechanics are less important, abbreviations and "emoticons" are more so. But the differences in communication don't stop there. Gurak (Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace), an associate professor and director of the Internet Studies Center at the University of Minnesota, goes beyond examining the electronic world's free-and-easy wordsmithing to tackle the fundamental characteristics of how people online really communicate with one another. Becoming cyberliterate, she writes, means that one must "recognize that technologies have consequences, and that we can decide how we allow the Internet to be part of our lives." Cyberliteracy is a new skill: not only do online communications have aspects of both oral and written speech, they vary in their legitimacy netizens must analyze them to separate logical argument from illogical rant and e-mail hoax from e-mail truth. When defining cyberliteracy and detailing its effects, the book is convincing; when Gurak describes what an e-mail flame is, or how easy it is to shop online, however, she treads on familiar ground. Her thoughts on anonymity and gender are shared by many of her colleagues and other writers, and the enduring online privacy debates are given a cursory glance that fails to advance either side of the argument. When she sticks close to her academic rhetorician's roots, Gurak's writing is lively and edifying, but when she strays into broader and oft-considered topics, the work falters. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Gurak's premise is that "technologies have social consequences," and that an engaged, informed citizenry is essential if we are to tap technical advances in communication for the public good, and not just for commercial success. In opening chapters, she articulates four elements that characterize Internet communication-speed, reach, anonymity, and interactivity-and, in subsequent discussion, shows how these features conspire to spark changes in language use, attitudes, and behaviors on the part of online users. A laissez-faire approach by government to regulation of the Internet is viewed as inadequate in the face of concerns for privacy, and the U.S. posture on this key issue is contrasted with that taken in Europe. Gurak uses telling examples to flesh out her reasoning that it is vital to take control of our e-spaces, and in so doing provides a valuable alert to students willing to consider both the potential and the pitfalls of this medium. She urges the online community to be proactive, to develop critical analytical skills, and to voice concerns with an eye to industry decisions that have an impact on our wired lives. A final, well-phrased caution is that, ultimately, when the physical meets the virtual, "physicality rules." This book is a solid resource for contemporary-issues reports or for debate material; it offers an ample bibliography, plus links to Web sites of professional organizations interested in preserving privacy, shaping public policy, and focusing on the challenges of cyberspace.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Yale University Press
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New Edition
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Toward a New Internet

There's no turning back. Once a novelty, the Internet is now transforming how Americans live, think, talk, and love; how we go to school, make money, see the doctor, and elect presidents. This isn't just about the future—it's about the here and now.

Newsweek (20 September 1999, 39)

By "literacy" I mean ... not only the ability to read and write but an activity of the minds ... capable of recognizing and engaging substantive issues along with the ways that minds, sensibilities, and emotions are constructed by and within communities whose members communicate through specific technologies. In other words, literacy has to do with consciousness: how we know what we know and a recognition of the historical, ideological and technological forces that inevitably operate in all human beings.

—Kathleen Welch (1999, 67)

    Fifty years ago, the above quotation from Newsweek would have been impossible to comprehend. As an early, pre-Web Internet user, I for one could not have imagined this technology becoming so common that the obscure UNIX term for the period, "dot," would be a word used in daily conversation. Yet today, many of us live in a state constantly mediated between our physical lives and our electronic ones, moving between our physical spaces (homes, classrooms, and offices) and our private e-spaces(voice-mail boxes, email, and chat sites) without thinking much about it. We do this even though this way of living is radically different from what most humans have experienced until now. More and more, we do it to the tune of what big corporations see as the Internet's future. And we do it, almost always, with little critical observation of our own behavior. We're too busy moving along the superhighway, the metaphor that brought us to this place, to stop and ask how much we like it, how it affects our physical lives, and whether the current Internet offers the best model for the long-term good of society.

    Yet if we stepped back not so long ago in the United States, or if we dropped in today to a country more rooted in its villages, neighborhoods, and localities, we would experience a completely different sense of things. We would become aware of how slowly life moved and how long it took to eat a meal, bake bread, shop for clothing, or read a book. I suspect that many of us would long to return to our hyper-paced life, to the early part of the twenty-first century in the United States where the global blended with the local, the physical with the virtual, the human with the machine. I know that part of me would be unhappy living in a slower, less wired time. But I am not completely pleased with how our wired lives are turning out. The efficiency of the Internet is great, and the ability to reach out to others and tap into vast sources of information and ideas, generated by anyone from a sixth-grader to a major news organization, is profound. Yet more and more of the Internet is being used to make money, gather our personal information, protect corporate intellectual property, and encourage us to shop. In addition, the ways we now think about our social spaces are changing dramatically in response to how these technologies are being implemented. We expect to send and receive email with incredible speed and get angry if replies don't come quickly enough. When it comes to email, we care less and less about spelling or grammar. We sit at individual screens, staring into the flicker, waiting for our virtual friends to appear, while our other friends and family sit in the next room. How we view the world and how we live in it are being shaped by the features of these new technologies.

    Scholars have thought about these issues for some time now. Yet as cybertechnologies—the Web, email, voice mail, interactive television, and new technologies to come—become cheaper, easier to access, and more ubiquitous, questions that once mattered only to specialists studying online communication are now on the minds of almost every person who conducts business, pursues hobbies, enlists political support, finds a date, or keeps in touch with distant friends and family in our wired, edgy, postmodern world. Open up any newspaper or magazine, and you are sure to find an article or two about the social side of the Internet. People seem aware that this technology has profound implications for them, but they also have many questions; for example, the special issue of Newsweek quoted in the epigraph raises questions about business, medicine, politics, and education in the wired age.

    In this book I argue that in terms of current discussion—at home, in the classroom, and in the boardroom—what we really need to understand is not just how to use the technology but how to live with it, participate in it, and take control of it. In other words, what we need is a new literacy, a critical literacy, for this new medium. Unless people become familiar with the social, rhetorical, and political features of digital communication, they will be led into cyberspace with only a limited understanding of both the power and the problems of this technology. To become cyberliterate, people need to understand the topics addressed in this book, not only to become more efficient computer users but also to become more sophisticated about critiquing, challenging, and anticipating how these technologies are designed, implemented, and used.

    Survey after survey shows that Internet users are at once excited and nervous about the potentials of this new technology. The issue of online privacy illustrates this point. In a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (1999), 70 percent of parents with computers felt that the Internet offered children opportunities for learning. But even more parents (75 percent) were concerned about how these new technologies might be used to gather personal information or provide access to unacceptable images and text. So while parents want children to use the Internet, these same parents fear problems they do not understand and cannot control. Privacy is in fact a key concern regarding today's Internet. Yet with few public forums available for this sort of discussion, and with congressional debates led mostly by business interests that favor little or no regulation of data privacy, the proverbial "man on the street" (updated to "person on the wires") feels that he or she has few choices about online technologies and privacy. Cyberliteracy, taught at all educational levels and incorporated into how we approach this technology, would cause Internet users to question the privacy issue: to reject sites that don't have clear privacy policies and to lobby their representatives for more comprehensive approaches to privacy and technology.

    By inviting readers to use the Internet critically, this book offers a set of tools for navigating the new terrain. It asks readers to be active participants in cyberspace and to become familiar with both the obvious and the not-so-obvious features. It suggests that to be truly literate online, users must understand the economic and political forces that are shaping information technologies. For technologies are not neutral. They do not develop in isolation from the social, political, and (most important in the United States) economic powers. Cyberliteracy involves, as Welch suggests in the second epigraph to this chapter, a conscious interaction with the new technologies: one that embraces and enjoys the technology but at the same time is critical, looking beyond the enticing Web images or speedier data connections that dominate our images of cyberspace.

    Defining Literacy and Cyberliteracy

    What is cyberliteracy? The term literacy is a highly contested one; I will provide a brief overview of this issue to illustrate how I am using the concept. Looking at this overview leads one to the logical conclusion that in the digital age, the concept of literacy must be reconfigured if it is to be useful for helping us understand communication in the future.

    Kathleen Tyner, in Literacy in a Digital World (1998), provides a succinct overview of the literacy debate. She notes that in general, the term literacy is often equated with the ability to read and write. Before World War II, scholars wrote about "literacy as a tool for transforming higher psychological processes" (25). This ideological perspective—that being able to read and write was somehow transformative and brought people to a "higher level" of cognitive ability—valued certain types of ability over others; thus, scholars were making vast judgments about the superiority of one culture over another. Western cultures, living in the post-Gutenberg world of print, were, according to this way of thinking, superior to many traditional, indigenous cultures that communicated their history and cultural knowledge orally (through stories, poetry, song, and so on). As studies of human society became more culturally sensitive, this older view of literacy was hotly contested, and people realized that what "counts" as literacy in one culture may not be the same in another. In a more open view, all forms of discourse from all cultures are also forms of literacy.

    And yet, popular understandings of literacy often hearken back to those more biased, simplistic definitions, valuing reading and print over any other form of communication. This view of literacy is what might be labeled as "performative": that is, the ability to do something is what counts. We hear about literacy in this way almost every day when we watch the television news or read the paper and learn that people need to become more "computer literate" or "technology literate," which, translated, usually means that these people need to learn how to use a computer and keyboard. Indeed, this view of literacy is so common that it leaves little room for what I am suggesting: a critical technological literacy, one that includes performance but also relies heavily on people's ability to understand, criticize, and make judgments about a technology's interactions with, and effects on, culture.

    In addition to literacy as performance, most people understand literacy to mean "print," and thus we have come to favor the book over the screen. As Welch, Tyner, and others have argued, print dominance has profound implications for higher education, because while students spend hours watching television and playing on the computer, their schoolwork still focuses on printed books.

    One way to update this print-limited view of literacy to include electronic texts is to consider the work of Walter Ong. Ong's notion of "secondary orality" helps describe the language we use on the Internet (email, Usenet news, the Web)—language that is a blend of written and spoken communication.

    I would be remiss to discuss Ong's work without noting its critics. Some people believe that Ong's analysis of oral and print cultures is biased, suggesting the inevitability of print and the superiority of those who live in the Gutenberg world, and they often draw on the following passage to make their case: "Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche. Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations. In this sense, orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing" (Ong 1988, 14-15). For this sort of thinking, Ong has taken his share of criticism, because these words may be interpreted to favor the white, European, post-Gutenberg world of print over numerous other oral traditions—traditions that are equally powerful and significant. He has, however, since modified his position.

    Ong's concept of secondary orality helps us consider cyberliteracy because it illustrates that electronic communication is in fact different from speech and different from print. A simple analysis of almost any email message illustrates this point. According to Ong, secondary orality combines features of print culture with features of oral culture. Like print, email is typed. It is fixed in a medium, for however long, and like a printed book can be distributed widely. Yet email texts sound more liked typed conversations than printed material. (Spelling and capitalization are often ignored, for example.)

    Ong identifies nine features of oral discourse, noting in one example that oral style is "additive rather than subordinative" (37); that is, each sentence builds on the previous one using certain parts of speech and rhythm. Others of Ong's oral characteristics—aggregative rather than analytical; redundant; conservative; close to the human lifeworld; agonistically toned; empathetic and participatory; homeostatic; situational—are useful in seeing how the "written" e-texts of electronic discussions (like email) resemble both writing and speech (Figure 1.1).

    This analysis helps us see that cyberliteracy is not purely a print literacy, nor is it purely an oral literacy. It is an electronic literacy—newly emerging in a new medium—that combines features of both print and the spoken word, and it does so in ways that change how we read, speak, think, and interact with others. Once we see that online texts are not exactly written or spoken, we begin to understand that cyberliteracy requires a special form of critical thinking. Communication in the online world is not quite like anything else. Written messages, such as letters (even when written on a computer), are usually created slowly and with reflection, allowing the writer to think and revise even as the document is chugging away at the printer. But electronic discourse encourages us to reply quickly, often in a more oral style: we blur the normally accepted distinctions (such as writing versus speaking) and conventions (such as punctuation and spelling). Normal rules about writing, editing, and revising a document do not make much sense in this environment. So it is not adequate simply to assume a performative literacy stance and think that if we teach people to use computers, they will become "literate." Cyberliteracy (again noting Welch) is about consciousness. It is about taking a critical perspective on a technology that is radically transforming the world.

    A Review of Western Literacy Technologies

     To be cyberliterate means that we need to understand the relationship between our communication technologies and ourselves, our communities, and our cultures. It may be hard to see the effects of the Internet and cyberspace on our daily lives, in large part because we are living in the midst of these changes. Already we take so much for granted. Email messages containing photos of your family in another state; real-time chats and instant messages; Web sites for almost every product, service, and idea imaginable—these features have quickly become part of our daily landscape. And even as these technologies shift into different shapes (new versions of software, faster Internet connections), they continue to affect how we view the world. Tyner's observation is astute: "Some literacy technologies atrophy from widespread disuse, but the conventions they foster in form and content may linger for centuries" (1998, 40). Cutting and pasting, kerning, the standard size of a page (8 1/2 x 11 inches)—all these ideas come from an older print technology but have made their way into new technologies like word processing and Web page design.

    Many people have become familiar with the standard litany of communication technologies in Western history: most books about the Internet have sections that describe the printing press, telegraph, radio, telephone, television, and so on. Each particular narrative paints a story to the author's liking, but most suggest in some way or another that these technologies led us to where we are today. The idea that today's Internet is a direct descendent of Gutenberg was canonized when the Arts and Entertainment cable channel, in October 1999, named the thirteenth-century inventor and craftsman the "#1 person in the millennium" (after a long countdown of the "top 100"). Yet what is often missing from these popularized accounts is a look at the relationship between communication technologies, cultures, and worldviews. Many scholars (Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Arnold Pacey—to name just a few) have observed these relationships between our tools and our times. In order to gain perspective on cyberliteracy, it is useful to revisit the history of communication technologies and look at how these technologies have altered cultures.

    In the Western story of literacy and technology, we often begin by looking at the stone counting devices used by ancient peoples to keep track of commerce, such as the sale of domesticated animals or grain (Faigley 1999). These technologies created what David Kaufer and Kathleen Carley (1993) call a "technological situation ... a set of available [communication] technologies and their distribution across individuals in the society" (99). Along with word of mouth and memory, farmers and tradespeople could rely on these inscribed pieces of clay to remind them who owed them a sheep or some wheat or barley. This technology increased the "reach" (see Chapter 2) of communication, because individuals did not need to be near each other to have a record of their transaction. A similar discussion takes place around the papyrus scroll; Aristotle's manuscripts were the length that they were in part because they needed to fit the size of a standard scroll (Aristotle 1991, 13). Social conditions changed, as Plato's oft-quoted Phaedrus dialogue tells us, when people began to record oral discourse onto these paper scrolls. And when the Catholic Church controlled manuscripts, another set of social conditions emerged: knowledge was in the hands of the priests and monks who maintained and copied these documents. As movable type and the Gutenberg printing press caught on, everyday people could own a Bible or a novel. Books and pamphlets, and issues of who could print and own them, became the subjects of many political battles, but in the end, the book—particularly the paperback—became what some would call a profound communication technology. It is small and lightweight. It does not require batteries. You can read it and pass it along to someone else. Indeed, from stone etchings to paperback novels, the shapes we have given the technologies of reading and writing have in turn become the shapes of how we live with each other.

    Next in this narrative come electronic technologies, which speeded up the transmission of information, increased the number of people who received this information (see Chapter 2), and began to move information from tangible ink on the page to electrified characters and sounds sent over wires. The impact of the telegraph and train, telephone, radio, and television has been studied widely by media critics, social historians, and historians and critics of technology. In fact, the telegraph brought with it changes very similar to those we see with the Internet: Tom Standage, in The Victorian Internet (1998), calls the telegraph the "mother of all networks" and describes how this technology hinted at what we now find so profound about Internet communication: speed, reach, online romance, news and media coverage, and "a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary" (viii).

    Every communication technology, based on the choices made when it was designed and developed, changed our senses of space, community, and self. Each technology changed our sense of what we expect from our friends and our political leaders: until recently, for example, politicians needed to travel by plane or train to make personal connections with their constituencies. Later it was possible to use radio and television, but citizens were not able to talk back to these one-way technologies. Today politicians can stay in touch via the Web, and citizens fully expect to be able to do so; Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, for example, has maintained a successful Web site both before and after his election (Figure 1.2).

    People born in the midst of a new technology, before it becomes ubiquitous, are often keenly aware of these social and cultural changes (never more so than today, when commentary about the Internet is everywhere). Many of us who are now over 40 learned to write first with paper and pencil, then with a typewriter. We adapted our writing styles and techniques as each iteration of word processor came along, from the dedicated machines of the 1980s (like the Wang) to the more intuitive software of Word Perfect and Microsoft Word. Despite great strides in user interfaces, screen resolutions, and processing speeds, many people—particularly in my age group—have trouble editing on screen. At a certain stage, we need to print out our memo, essay, or letter because of what researcher Christina Haas (1996) has characterized as the "text sense problem." The people she studied indicated that when they used the computer to write, they had "a hard time knowing where [they were]" (120) and often felt disconnected and lost in the screen text.

    Many of us who teach writing have noticed that a younger generation, surrounded by screens and buttons, are comfortable with writing, editing, and navigating completely within the digital text. They live in a world of digitized space. Before they could even speak, they watched people channel surf, press buttons to heat things in a microwave, and navigate the Web. This generation does not always create a document with the goal of printing it (a feature of early word processing); what they produce on the screen often is the final product (a Web page, for example). Our technologies condition our comfort, and the more ubiquitous a technology is, the more natural it seems.

    Discussions of electronic technologies often focus on how we read and write in this space. Perhaps because writing instructors were some of the first to be confronted with computers in the classroom, a wide body of commentary and research has developed to consider this particular feature of e-technologies: how we work with text affects how we read and write. Linear ways of thinking go by the wayside the more one begins to be surrounded by chunks of information, sound bites, and "site bites" (Welch 1999).

    Yet the relationship between our communication technologies and our lives is not only a cognitive one. It is a political one as well. New technologies are often used to reinforce, not change, current power structures. On the Internet, this phenomenon is readily apparent. Take Marshall McLuhan's concept of the "global village." Paul Levinson (1999) notes the aptness of this concept, originally conceived with television in mind, for today's Internet: "The advent of computer screens not only as receivers but initiators of information in homes and offices around the world ... [fulfills] another of McLuhan's observations about the global village—namely, that its dispersion of information is creating a new power structure whose 'centers are everywhere and margins are nowhere'" (7). But even though the Internet inspires new global models, many of the best grassroots sites are being bought out and sold on the traditional stock market. They now have CEOs, worry about profit margins, and are subject to large mergers (like AOL and Time Warner).


Excerpted from cyberliteracy by Laura J. Gurak. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.

What People are Saying About This

Lawrence Lessig
This beautifully written book will go far in teaching an essential literacy for the age of cyberspace.--(Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University Law School, and author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace)
Kathleen Ethel Welch
Gurak sizzles here with deep insight and a vision of the cyberfuture. A must read. Soon to become a classic.--(Kathleen Ethel Welch, author of Electric Rhetoric and Noble Family Foundation Presidential Professor of English, University of Oklahoma)
Katherine Tyner
Gurak presents an compelling analysis of what it means to be literate in contemporary times." (Katherine Tyner, author, Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information)

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