Network Literacy

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


"Recent scholarship on new media literacy has continued to nuance its definitions for the practices of producing and understanding the texts of computer-mediated communication. Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digial Age and Gregory Ulmer’s Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy each provided substantial discussion of what it means (and what it takes) for writers to be “new media literate.” While the two texts were wholly different in method and approach, each offered important and useful ways of thinking about the “literacy” part of network literacy. Each argued that we cannot underestimate the extent to which context and culture inform digital writing, and that digital writing environments and practices present us with a unique opportunity to examine the social and cultural materialities of writing.

Selber argued that English departments and writing programs should take responsibility for computer literacy and offered three cooperative components for doing so: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. His concern was that it is not enough for users or writers to know how to use programs and applications, but colleges and universities often take this reductive approach when they institute a computer literacy requirement. “It is clear…that computer literacy programs can take a rather monolithic and one-dimensional approach, ignoring the fact that computer technologies are embedded in a wide range of constitutive contexts, as well as entangled in value systems” (Selber, 2004, p. 22). He acknowledged that basic or functional skills are necessary to computer literacy, but that functional skills are only one part of understanding how technology affects communication. In addition to functional literacy, writers and users also need to understand that technology itself shapes what can be communicated—that computers and their applications are artifacts and therefore represent and preserve particular politics and ideologies that can (and should) be interrogated (p. 75). Critical literacy, then, attends to the humanistic element of computer literacy; it is the ability to recognize the social forces that drive the design and use of technology, “to recognize and articulate the ways power circulates in technological contexts” (p. 133). Selber’s final component, rhetorical literacy, included four parameters: persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action (p. 147). Rhetorical literacy involves users understanding both how, for instance, interface design is implicitly and explicitly persuasive, and how to design (compose) electronic texts with an eye for problem solving.

For writers to engage with technology in the ways Selber outlined above requires a substantial shift in our attitude toward the discipline of composition and rhetoric. Selber suggested a subversive approach to making curricular, departmental, and institutional changes. His position that “an important role for English departments is to help position human-computer interaction as essentially a social problem, one that involves values, interpretation, contingency, persuasion, communication, deliberation, and more” (p. 235) resonates with Jeff Rice’s call that English studies should be new media. Rice (2006) explains that “English studies has considered the ways relationships and connections work between texts and race, gender, or class…, how connections affect critique…, [and] the roles connections play in cultural analysis” (p. 128). Selber and Rice made similar claims that the nature of the programs from which writing classes typically emerge cannot ignore the pervasive ways technology implicates itself into what is being taught. Interpretation, analysis, connections among and between people and ideas: all of these are mediated. And if we are to assume that English studies and writing classes are critical and self-reflective, we cannot ignore the media that carry and inform messages and ideas. The pervasiveness with which new media has infiltrated our communication practices cannot be justifiably ignored in writing classes that claim stock and trade in skills like rhetorical analysis, critical inquiry, and cultural currency (1).

Where Rice and Selber’s positions diverge is in their understandings of the extent to which the tools themselves are constitutive actors in the network—technology is not “self-determining” (p. 40) according the Selber, while Rice drew from William Mitchell’s contention that “our networks make us” (p. 130). This divergence may arise out of Rice’s emphasis on connectivity and socialization, via technology, as a “process of working with information” (p. 131). How we work with information, whether that information be people, ideas, or texts, is shaped by the environment in which we encounter that information and the associations that are immediately available to us at the moment of encounter. Those associations are a result of connections, of the network itself, and are continuously shifting; the momentary nature of these associations determines what we understand, what we write, and who we are at any given, but fleeting, time.

Gregory Ulmer (2003) may provide us with a model for applying the problem of the network to Selber’s multilieracies. His work in Internet Invention described electracy(2) as the emerging epistemological paradigm and offered his own tested classroom practices for delivering a course in which students construct “mystories” in order to create electracy. The mystory as a genre emerges in response to Hayden White’s reasoning that we cannot attain scientific knowledge of history, culture, and society, but we can produce meaningful examples (p. 23). As Ulmer explained, “[m]ystory is a version of this twentieth-century historiography that White proposed” (p. 5). Put simply, Ulmer’s program assumed that writers are the hubs of their own understanding of culture, which occurs at various levels of discourse, such as Family and community History (p. 6). Once writers examine the details of these discourses, paying special attention to the elements that prick personal memory(3), what emerges is an “image of wide scope.” The image of wide scope reflects on the recurring themes that come out of each writer’s examination of the discourses, and works to describe how each writer comes to interact with and process texts (or, more broadly, experiences). The assumption is that “every person possesses a wide or guiding image” (p. 18) or “a concrete feel for the surrounding world” (p. 20) that dictates how she makes meaning and situates herself among other knowers. The wide image (typically made up of several thematic images) is normally represented in implicit suppositions about how the world is and directs a person’s imagination. For instance, Einstein’s scientific creativity may have been directed by the image of the compass using magnetism and his sense that “something deeply hidden in reality must be in the form of a continuum like the magnetic contimuum that held the compass needle” (Briggs in Ulmer, 2003, p. 20). Einstein’s imagination of the world’s workings in this way determined how he formulated questions about quantum physics and dictated how he was able to invent experiments and theories about his research.

It is this notion of categorical wide image, then, and an epistemology of personal invention that allows us to connect Selber’s work with multiliteracies to Rice’s assertion that writing studies should “be” new media, should be the network. The network that Rice talked about is made of both writers and texts, but at the same time, the writers and the texts are made by the network. In exploring one’s wide image, a writer must examine himself as though he were unfamiliar; he must begin to understand the ways that the connections he has to the images in his own life are constructed not by his own personal experiences, but by a worldview—shaped by his interactions with others—that ultimately comes from outside him. While conventional literacy describes an ability to communicate with others, electracy describes an ability to see oneself as other and to engage with the “process of identity formation, both individual and collective” (Ulmer, 2003, p. 72).

We can consider this assemblage of new media literacies as an existing (in-progress) framework for network literacy. Clearly, writers need the foundational literacies that Selber described, including the ability to work a mouse and a browser, an awareness of how such tools, as artifacts, afford writers certain facilities and limit them in other ways, and the understanding that manipulation of the tools can be generative not only in composition but also in interrogating the ideological structures that determine the shape of computer-mediated communication. In addition, Ulmer’s theory of electracy posits that our present writing practices shape “literate” computer-mediated communication; that is, eletracy continually evolves depending on how the technology shifts, how writers make use of certain tools and applications, and what writing products look like when they exist in and because of new media.

Jeff Rice engaged with an emerging body of scholarship, network studies, to situate his claim that college English should “imagine…itself as a network” (Rice, 2006, p. 128). Albert-László Barabási (2002) and Steven Shaviro (2003) furnished Rice’s initial evidence that networks, and their increasing visibility and function in communication, were creating “an emerging sense of perception shaped by connections” (Rice, 2006, p. 128). The shift in our perception reflects a substantial (but still in its early stages) shift in epistemology and our understanding of writers’ and readers’ roles in the construction of identities and texts (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004)." (