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Internet: Literacy's Last Best Hope

by Laura Fillmore

Part 1

Presented at Ed-Media 95
World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia
Graz, Austria
June 21, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.


"Literacy" in this age of global hypertext means more than the capability to read and employ words. Internetworked "hyperliteracy" uses a language called HyperText Markup Language (HTML) to communicate collective, associative thought through linking related sites or files on the Internet's World Wide Web of computers. Weaving files together into a fabric of thoughts, ideas, and experiences involves a working triangle of participants (not necessarily separate individuals or firms): the author(s), the publisher(s), and reader(s): each one contributes materially to the publication.

Importantly, and by virtue of practicing his hyperliteracy in a recordable environment, the reader functions as a new kind of author in this evolving medium. By enabling this capability of worldwide authoring of dynamic context, we will greatly improve our capabilities to collate, create, and transfer knowledge. Hyperliteracy requires a free and open hand in order to realize its potential. "Publishing" in this environment comes to mean more than acquiring, producing, and distributing knowledge in the form of tangible publications: anyone living digitally in the recorded environment of the Internet might be called a publisher. Online publishing means being able to preserve and access later or share a dynamic, co-located, digitized experience. This gives new resonance to the terms "self publishing" and "vanity press," which have in the past been rather derogatory subsets of "real" publishing. According to the new definition, we publish as we read, write, and travel online, leaving behind us, either consciously or otherwise, our "session paths" or "thought paths".

The distributive and open architecture of the Internet, combined with the recorded participation of the reader, play a determining role in the expansion of the definition of "literacy" to mean reading and manipulating recorded thoughts and experiences on a worldwide, collective basis, whether alone in our rooms, or sharing with millions of others. "Hyperliteracy" then becomes then a way of living which can be either public or private, or both.

This new hyperliteracy now enjoys its infancy. While the idea of hypertext is some thirty years old, its implementation on the World Wide Web is only a few years old at most. We have begun to explore new kinetic "publications" or "managed experience communities" involving texts, graphics images, videos, sound files, human interaction via Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). The freedom to allow these internetworked media to grow and develop is being challenged in the U.S. Senate as recently as last week through new telecommunications legislation spearheaded by Senator Exon. One amendment to the telecommunications bill, which received an 81-18 majority vote in the Senate and still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President, points to a further kind of literacy: machine reading of rated content, a new kind of "barcoding" and controlling of ideas and information on the Internet. Against that harsh light of censorship, this presentation will attempt to show some of the nascent capabilities of the new HTML hyperliteracy, if left unfettered and allowed to grow, and some directions where freedom of speech, press, and online assembly might lead us.


"You will always remember this city," Klaus told me when our train approached Graz in August of 1971. "It is the only city in the world with a clock in the middle, on top of a mountain." I was seventeen, away from home for the first time, and coming to live with a family in Leutschach, right on the Yugoslavian border, for a year as an American Field Service exchange student. I knew not a word of German, save for what Klaus had managed to teach us during the week since we arrived, and was culturally illiterate as well, knowing only that, if we were to fit in, we should stay away from chewing gum, come to appreciate mountains instead of the malls, and drink Wein nach Bier anstatt Bier nach Wein. And become literate in German, quickly, because school at the Bundesrealgymnasium started in a week.

The Kostrons began what might today be called my interactive multimedia German literacy training at the Tauplitz, where the chalk is everywhere but there are no blackboards. And so I began to learn German through living on line -- the line of a mountain climber, where the fate of the many depends on the safety of the one -- and through osmosis. Mentally toggling back and forth between the languages, I would explain to myself in English something that had just happened in German; and then respond in a hybrid of German and English. Finally, after a few weeks, the words began to make sense, alone, auf Deutsch, and I knew I had found my Home Page when I began to dream in German, no longer needing to explain one language with the other.

But learning one new language, German, wasn't enough. Unlike in the US, where one, maybe two languages sufficed for a proper education, at the Leibnitz Bundesrealgymnasium, we had classes in French, English, German, Latin, and Serbocroatian or Italian. But mostly, I became culturally literate through media outside of the realm of books, like Schi-Wochen, and class trips to places like Vienna and Sarajevo. During one bus trip to Sarajevo, we visited a Mosque, an open market, and the street corner where Arch Duke Ferdinand was shot at the beginning of this century, starting what has been called "The War to End All Wars." The temporary peace thereafter mutated into the inferno of World War II, and, finally, the Superpowers' Cold War of nuclear deterrence. The threat of a nuclear first strike led the US to develop what has become the Internet, an acephalous and distributed communications network of networks.

I didn't learn about the Internet until the 1980s, while back in the States and working on a book about Wide Area Networks, "The Matrix" by John Quarterman. The author forwarded me email he'd picked off of the Net from students in Tiananmen Square during the Spring of 1989--fresh, first-person reporting on the rebellion. This experience opened my eyes to the possibilities of internetworked publishing. In the six years since then, I started the Online BookStore and have been learning to publish and to live in what has so quickly become a global medium, a highway to some and a way of life for others. This brings us to the new literacy, the hyperliteracy made possible by "talking" HTML, which is the topic of today's talk.


"Literacy" is generally accepted to mean knowledge of letters and books, working familiarity with the tools of reading and learning. A literate person can function in society, can communicate ideas and information to others at varying degrees of abstraction. Today's hyperliterate people are grounded in the immutable world of print and other tangible media. There is no "delete" key on a bookshelf which can expunge Solzhenitsyn or Nabokov or James Joyce and ban them into unread obscurity. "In scripta manent" began with the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, and this solid and transferrable base of the word as a concrete and immutable thing is the rock foundation from which hyperliteracy on the Net takes wing.

Mutability or "customization capability" plays a key role in online publishing. A significant new role for publishers is in fact standing as a bastion against such mutability, and serving as authenticators and verifiers of the accuracy of texts. Immutability matters, furthermore, in areas of copyright. The author must be assured that his words are not plagiarized and stolen online. However, piracy is not the main issue of hyperliteracy. The key challenge for the hypertext literate is how the meaning of an author's text changes color when it is contextualized, through juxtapositional linking with other digitized files. What do these new dynamic clusters of meaning signify for what we have come to know as copyright in the tangible media? Hyperliteracy, when practiced in a recorded environment, enables both the necessary authenticating of original texts, while conveying power on the author/reader to link ideas and intelligences. The reader is no longer alone, or necessarily anonymous.


But beyond the obvious and the accepted meaning of "literacy" in the context of words, consider other forms of literacy. The "computer literate" person can use the basic tools offered by a computer; he is comfortable in what to many are the baffling and nonintuitive world of Windows, spreadsheets, help screens, ports both SCSI and serial. On the other hand, a biologically hyperliterate person can work online, in the online frog dissection lab, or read the genetic code of Eisman; he can decipher the life maps laid open to us by Watson and Crick and their double helix. Knowing the code and controlling the recorded medium in which that code is used, offer people new and creative authoring and publishing powers by enabling the readers or users of the code, not only the tools to perceive a thought or idea, but to participate in its creation. Online breathes life into a static publication so that it becomes an experience, in so doing offering a potent complement to -- and not a substitute for -- our existing print culture.


The Internet is owned by no one. Because of the distributed architecture of the World Wide Web, and the open and common protocol, TCP/IP, which enables any computer to talk to any other Internetworked computer, regardless of its manufacturer or country of origin, the Web offers unmediated, immediate, and multimedia communication capability. Just about anyone with access to a computer, a phone line, and a modem can participate. Not an export whose contents are secret, whose core must be jealously guarded and contained, like a nuclear power plant with all its technology under lock and key, the Internetworking technology is an enabling set of electronic communications capabilities, open and available to all.

Internet is less a thing than it is an idea, the functioning concept for a global thought machine with millions of pathways in and out of it, perpetually in the process of inventing itself by enabling instantaneous transference of thoughts as words, words as sounds, sounds illustrated by pictures, and pictures as frozen stills of a mortal attached to the machine.

Where the Internet was designed as a means for computer professionals to share scarce and expensive hardware resources, it turned out to be a superior communications medium; rumor has it that the researchers ended up talking about "Star Trek" instead of creating blueprints for "Star Wars" a lot of the time. Such seductive communications capabilities have led to the exponential Internet growth of today, which in large part can be ascribed to the "friendly", if wordless, world of W3 point and click. Where on the one hand, the mice-driven cybersociety that is arising out of the interwebbed computers is less reliant on words than on the navigating and nesting of icons, we can see hyperliteracy increasing, becoming a powerful capability to use our new electronic tools to define a communicative medium of collective experience. Building on the conventional sense of literacy, the ability to understand and communicate abstract and immutable words, hyperliteracy means the capability to recognize, access and apply hypertext ideas and tools in an online experiential medium.

The new binary life forms rising and recombining on the Web point the way to this evolution of "literacy", pointing to what may become deliberate, cognitive evolution. It is an evolution that begins in dissolution; the reweaving is only beginning. Living on the Web extends beyond national borders and chronological boundaries, beyond the conventional disciplines of literature and biology, technology and politics. We are able now not only to tell each other about what we know, but to show as well. Reading a book about frog dissection involves literacy in order to understand and abstract the meaning from the words. Building on that, we see that a hyperliterate person not only reads *about* dissecting frogs, but can be shown how to do it and do it himself, virtually, online. Tomorrow, this interactive dissection program will doubtless be supplemented by an online program enabling the hyperliterate user to simulate the authoring of life as well, to build the double helix as a school experiment. This use of the Internet as a biology lab for hyperliterate students playing with the building blocks of life stands in sharp contrast to the origins of the medium itself, a technology devised in response to the threat of nuclear desolation and the annihilation of life.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

OBS White Papers Part 2