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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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
when debating Internet communication in good-or-bad terms,
who, exactly, are "we?"
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
believes email hasn't reduced interpersonal communication
so much as changed it. ("I almost never talk on the phone.")
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."
Lesie is a Cleveland-based writer who formerly wrote for
the Plain Dealer.
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