Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
  You Have Mail. Now What?
New Town Square or Home-Alone Retreat: The Jury's Still Out.

by Michele Lesie

illustrations by Hal Mayforth



continued from first page...

The Written Word

Assistant professor of expository writing and English Anne Trubek '88 has narrowed the analysis to a manageable realm. Her class, Technologies of Writing from Plato to the Digital Age, scrutinizes how computers have changed the writing process. The transformation, in her view, is as dramatic to our society as was Gutenberg's press, incorporating standardized spelling; the concepts of originality, creativity, and the individual author; and our fears of something new.

"I'm inclined to say, 'The technology is here, now let's analyze the implications,'" she says. "The Web is nonlinear--it's based on associative thinking, not beginning-to-end. You click on something and go to the next thing via a link. Many argue that you lose a sense of the whole by going directly to what you want, that without context you're not getting the whole picture." But, she points out, people go directly to what they want in cookbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and newspapers. One way is not necessarily better than the other. "My students' collective goal is to improve their writing by becoming more reflective about the material process, so they'll see that writing is not a set of arbitrary rules."

But she also hopes that her students think about the technology they take for granted. (An aide in her office recently had to be shown how to load paper into a typewriter.) She's impressed by their ability to write and edit on screen, and adds that some professors accept essays on websites in place of hard copy.

Because we can think and write at the same time, remove what has been written without leaving a trace, and correct and rearrange with ease, we may be weakening our ability to organize ideas before writing. "What makes a well-structured piece of writing will change," Trubek predicts. "And as writing changes, we change. The way we write determines the way we think." But computers do not, she believes, weaken writing skills.

"People spend lots more time writing now than they did a few years ago. There is still a premium placed on personal writing and clever emails. Some say the Internet will be the end of writing, but you could also call it the return to writing."

Tom Novak '77, an Oberlin psychology major, is a professor at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management. He and his wife co-direct eLab, a program that aids researchers in observing how we interact with websites. "People started using the Web because they wanted to communicate with those they have some sort of affinity with," he says. "Virtual communities, to people who use them, are very real."

And when debating Internet communication in good-or-bad terms, who, exactly, are "we?"

Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community, noted in a 1998 essay that "we" includes quadriplegics, AIDS patients, caregivers of the chronically ill, bright minds in remote locations, and others for whom online communicating is a lifeline.

Broad conclusions drawn from lumping these people in with chatting teens, Star Trek fans, scientists, hobbyists, and hate groups are practically worthless. More important than the good-or-bad issue, according to Novak, is the problem of people not having access.

John agrees. "As we become more and more dependent on information, we open up a new system of inequality," she says. "Being excluded from access can be socially limiting, and that quickly becomes a tool for stratification." The left-behind are not just people who can't afford computers or who live in places without linkage, but those who lack the skills that have become second nature to much of the world. "The digital divide is a problem whose impact we are just beginning to understand," she says.  

The Ripple Effect

Oberlin College students are closing the divide between the local haves and the have-nots at The Bridge, a downtown Oberlin shop converted into a computer training classroom. Local students or residents can drop in and make an appointment to "learn the computer" at no charge. Staffed with student volunteers, the program has inspired others in the community to donate unneeded Macs and PCs. After classrooms of the local schools are equipped, rejuvenated computers find their way into private homes of residents who had never dreamed of owning such a treasure. Like a stone dropped into a pool, the ripple effect of expanding ownership and education never ends.

As a Peace Corps education placement officer in Washington, D.C., John Charles '87 oversees volunteers who help developing countries catch up with Internet technology. Ample funding for computer equipment is available, "but you can't just say 'Here's your computer,'" Charles says. Volunteers spend two years teaching villagers to use and maintain the equipment.


On a personal level, Charles, who is among the generation that actually recalls writing papers on a standard typewriter, has begun to notice the little quirks that arise after the initial thrill of any new technology dissipates. "It really hasn't made my job easier," he says. "I get so many emails that it takes a long time to reply. In some cases, a phone call would be more efficient." Because a decision to join the Peace Corps is not made dispassionately, he says, "I wish we could devote more time to people whose concerns require lengthy telephone conversations."

It seems as though the only group for whom the dust has settled on the Internet revolution are those who hardly remember life without it. "We always had a computer in our house," says Oberlin junior Phil Grasso, a computer-science major from Illinois whose fascination began with the video games he played as a child. "Access to a word processor was associated with a good education."

His parents, he notes, email but have not embraced the Internet as voraciously as their children. "It's kind of like driving a car," he says. "You have to be young and reckless, otherwise you'd be terrified. I don't find myself sitting in my room searching the Internet for entertainment. I do check recommended websites, but that's part of the process of hanging out. To an extent, the Internet has become mundane."

Sophomore Ian Bergman, an economics major from Washington who envisions a career in information technology, has been online since fourth grade, chatting. He misses the old days.

"I thought of the bulletin boards as more like communities than the ones they have now," he says. "They were more intimate, sometimes run from people's homes. I haven't used Internet chat in years. It got boring." The Web, he says, "has certainly lost its novelty for me and a lot of other people. To me, a computer is another appliance."

Bergman believes email hasn't reduced interpersonal communication so much as changed it. ("I almost never talk on the phone.")

"If you spend two hours working or playing a game, you're not doing something else. But for people who are really involved, there's not so much a drop in social activity as a change. After all, you're playing games with other people and talking to other people. People keep seeing these large social changes where there aren't any."

Michele Lesie is a Cleveland-based writer who formerly wrote for the Plain Dealer.

go to page | 1 | 2 | of You've Got Mail: Now What?
Contents/HOME OAM Home Oberlin Online HOME