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Internet: Literacy's Last Best Hope

by Laura Fillmore

Part 2

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.


HTML, or HyperText Mark-Up Language, is a simple set of codes derived from SGML, Standard Generalized Mark-Up Language. Richer than traditional typesetting codes, which simply serve to typemark a manuscript for a typesetter, so that, for example, a headline would appear in large and boldface type, or text body would appear in serif text type, SGML and its sister HTML offer dimensionality to the new literacy, in that this coding system blends semantics or meaning, with type coding. In SGML, the type coding reflects the contents of the publication, so that, once coded, it can be searched and accessed. HTML's twin pillars of strength are its simplicity, enabling it to become an extremely popular publishing tool, combined with its multimedia aspect. The HTML author writes in words, colors, music, people, voices, and videos. He enjoys as part of his palette the collective and evolving work of all the other people simultaneously working online in HTML, which he can access by linking to them, by copying or modifying their source code, by adopting features and innovations with work well. The HTML-literate author/reader has a world class laboratory and library at his fingertips every time he turns on his machine.

What kind of publishing results when the HTML literati shake loose ideas from their book covers, and begin to release online classes, and conversations, and concerts in customized experience packets? Thanks to HTML, in the last year or so we have discovered that publishing no longer means moving book products around; we are engaged in the *process* of publishing, the process of thinking, aloud and alive. Books are the foundation upon which this moving kaleidoscope of a hypertext house is built; the upper floors need the basement and ground floor. But upstairs, online, the palimpsest has replaced the printed and bound book; each book, liberated from its author, from its publisher even, newly linked to its reader, who may also be its author (!), enjoys the opportunity to continually rewrite and revise itself. The contextualized book ceases to be a book in any recognizable sense, serving only as a familiar springboard from which to launch out into the unknown that is cyber. Instead of books we have online playgrounds or activity areas, where the effective publisher does not present one point of view, but rather offers the reader the opportunity to learn online, collectively, in a recorded environment.

Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," is available in distributive format online at OBS. (Fischer Verlag cooperated in putting up some parts of the German edition as well.) In trying to enable the book to breathe, to be contextualized, we created a complement to the printed version, creating a site that could not exist in another media. We linked it to a customized news feed from ClariNet News Service, effectively piping in live world events from major wire services around the world, sorted on "Mandela" and "South Africa," into the book. Maps of South Africa are linked to the book as well, joining our publisher, Time Warner, for the purposes of this distributive publication, with a complementary map publisher. The power comes from the HTML linking; we are including or pointing to another publisher's work, therein making both of our works richer, and bring traffic to both sites. Traffic, the water in the well, is the desideratum of all online publishers.

Hyperliteracy enables the author or link editor to think in multiple and inclusive dimensions. For example, in the Mandela autobiography again, after Nelson Mandela emerges from jail after twenty-seven years of incarceration, and, with Martin Luther King's widow beside him on the podium as he addresses his people saying "Free at Last! Free at Last!" , the HTML link transports the willing reader beyond the book to a file in New York which has the complete version of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech on it. Thus Mandela's book includes King's speech, a living, breathing footnote, in a way impossible in another medium.

Located on servers on three continents, the Internet files for Nelson Mandela's book cannot be contained; the more they are used and accessed, the richer they become. The link from the book (published by Time Warner) into the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights offering all citizens freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and freedom of the press (online publication isn't mentioned;-) ) serves at least two purposes: to juxtapose the political climate of Apartheid under which Mandela came of age, and which system jailed him for close to three decades, and also to put into relief the communicative power of the very Internet medium enabling online publication of Mandela's book.

Freely reading the online text, the readers through their accessing of the files show us how people read and think and live online--what they are interested in, whether they want to look at maps or photos or read texts or look at news feeds. For remember, in this environment, we know how people move through a site, how people access what used to be called a book. Some are uneasy in their easy chairs with the thought that their reading is recorded, their thought paths can be followed--or blocked. But the capability for recording thought paths exists and this must be considered as a key aspect of a successful publishing model.

But with these early distributive books, we are still in the learning stages, we are observing, seeing what works, what people want and how they behave in a free and uncensored online environment. These observations will enable us to build a usable knowledge machine which should prove useful to more publishers -- both traditional and unconventional -- as they move online. As with the Internet itself, the ideas introduced in this and earlier distributive publications are open, available to all to take up and experiment with on their own. The HTML code is an open standard, the literacy just beginning to be explored.

Every experiment in online publishing opens the doors further. A recent project, Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital" for Random House Publishers, contextualized the book, a very pro- cyber title, by juxtaposing it with other books espousing differing points of view. This pushes the discipline of link editing beyond the simply illustrative task of pointing to a related .gif file of a map, as was done in the Mandela book. Our link editor experimented with the semantics of link editing, and brought into focus the new experiential literacy by association that is possible with HTML.

Negroponte points, for example, to an artificial intelligence experiment at the Media Lab at MIT in the US, called Ringo, which enables the user to identify what type of music he appreciates most. Negroponte, a founder of the Media Lab, is obviously very positive about this program. Cliff Stoll, the author of "Silicon Snake Oil," a bestselling book which takes the opposite tack about the boons of cyberspace, says basically "Who needs a computer program to tell me what kind of music to listen to?" But ultimately, the link editor proves her literacy in the new medium not only by juxtaposing the two authors, but by offering the reader the option of actually experiencing the program under discussion, Ringo, and making his own judgment about it.

Hyperliteracy, then, elevates the reader beyond being the recipient and processor of information, to being a participant in the content of the book. Furthermore, that reader need not remain silent about his conclusions. He can join in the fray, carrying the discussion on even further through the Discussion Forum. The discussion forum takes place in a kind of mediated hypermail environment, which we chose above an automatic hypermail program so that our link editor could elevate the level of discussion, and submit the best comments and suggestions for new links to the author, further involving him in the ongoing process of his book.

With publishing then, as with the original Internet itself, the medium is revealing new uses above and beyond those it was originally designed for. Publishers originally thought of using it as a massively effective distribution medium for their established business of marketing and distributing text and pictures. What is emerging as a definitive challenge of online publishing is how to involve the reader in the process. In particular, the HTML-literate reader becomes a key component to success of an Internet site.

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

OBS White Papers Part 3