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Internet: Literacy's Last Best Hope

by Laura Fillmore

Part 3

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.


Of course, as with any emerging technology, the balances are being struck as we work. The involvement of the reader in the publishing equation becomes a necessity for publishers, for in the participatory environment where the reader can talk back, and can talk back in multiple forums to millions of people, controlling one's publication becomes difficult and one needs to build a loyal community of readers to define one's site. Where one can more or less control the contained *content* of one's publications, in a free and open HTML environment one cannot contain or control the *contextualization* of one's publications.

Say for example that Simon & Schuster was republishing its book from 1956 . A link editor from another site, say that in Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, might contextualize this upbeat and offer a new perspective on nuclear power, some forty years later. Other sites, such as Greenpeace might contribute hypermail links into the book for further commentary on the juxtaposition between the fairy tale of the children's book, and the too real safety and survival factors involved in nuclear power. Linking into the IAEA in Vienna might offer yet another perspective, from the point of view of the U.N., and the global student perspective might be gained from. Many points of view are represented, and the reader is encouraged to think and draw his own conclusions. The good link editor is neutral; is an enabler. The reader decides. For some tautologists, there is one point of view and all others are obscene; such publishers will be threatened in an environment where contextualization is the rule and the reader chooses freely from among the multiple aspects of Truth. It's all there; it just needs to be associated, thought about, and acted on. The words, the actions, whatever is published on the net can become part of the Great Record, first described by Vannevar Bush in an article in 1945. We are creating a kinetic and customizable palimpsest. In view of such mutability, the need to preserve existing print libraries is essential, both to authenticate the online texts and to encourage and preserve the deep reading capability of concentration and imagination that only reading text can offer. All is in flux: paper, disks, wires, phones, the thrilling specter of a worldwide participatory thought machine. And the key word keeps returning: control.

One definition of literacy in the HTML environment means being able to become a publisher oneself, or a publisher's publisher. But how to control the contextualization of your content, and should you be able to do so? We see from the above example that such control may not be possible in a globally internetworked and open environment, and that the absence of such control may stimulate new and unprecedented levels of objective thought, and also, perhaps, literary and political turmoil.

Perhaps the spread of nuclear technology occurs in the face of secrecy and attempts to control or contain knowledge and tools, while the Internet succeeds because of its open architecture. Successful Internet software and successful distributed publications do not attempt to prohibit, control or contain their basic technology. That's where their power comes from. Knowledge evolves from its use, not from hindering or prohibiting its use.

Perhaps a more apt, if more chilling illustration of HTML literacy, again in terms both of reading and distributive publishing--what we have in earlier publications called "pubnetting"--might be found in the biological or viral environment. In the traditional publishing scene, a publisher might contract for a book about AIDS, tracing case studies and treatments. Online, however, the book might soon expand well beyond its covers to encompass whole hyperlinked sites which involve not only the patients (the case studies) communicating with each other, the doctors who are treating them and writing up the case studies, and the drug companies manufacturing the experimental vaccines for the virus. Some reader might explore the history of the subject, and introduce an unconventional point of view, challenging both publisher and link editor. On this subject, Dr. Len Horowitz, graduate of Harvard Medical School, in his book manuscript "Deadly Diplomacy: Creating a New World Order" includes what he calls "a purchase order from the US Department of Health Education and Welfare for the development of the AIDS virus." A good medical link editor might juxtapose his radical position paper with new information about a vaccine, or experiments on monkeys in Africa, or drug information coming out of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The juxtaposition of complementary or conflicting points of view create a rich and dynamic climate for debate and the discovery of Truth.

Literacy becomes experience. Publishing online means the making public of ideas and information: thoughts, photographs, videos, sounds, immediate computer mediated communication, gene maps. The boundaries between book and book, between author and reader are dissolving. The ideas, images and experiences once found only in books, are now, at the hands of the HTML literate, able to recombine, associate and flow more freely. Thanks to the intermediation of intelligent link editors, so too are we beginning to see dissolving the familiar disciplinary boundaries dissolving between literature and politics, between domestic science and biological science, between our public and our private lives. Amid all this freedom and opening up of boundaries, again, the key word "control" keeps coming up.

To explore the issues of freedom and control in the context of this new and internetworked literacy, let's turn back to that schoolbus trip I took with my Seventh class from Leibnitz to Sarajevo twenty-four years ago, and also back to the events in the US Senate in Washington D.C. just last week. As an amendment to a the most significant telecommunications legislation in 61 years, on June 15, the U.S. Senate voted 81-18 in favor of deregulating the telecommunications industry to a significant degree. Championed by Senator Exon, who is shocked and outraged at the prospect that children may view sexually explicit materials on the Internet, the amendment to this telecommunications bill includes some telling opening gambits in what promises to be a major struggle in defining what Freedom of Speech and Press and Online Assembly means, from the US perspective, in the internetworked world.

This Exon amendment would, if passed in its entirety, according to the "Boston Globe" of June 16, "Require new TV sets to contain a computer chip that recognizes programs labelled by broadcasters as violent. Parents would be able to block those shows from their televisions." To reiterate: We are talking about labelling content to be monitored so that certain programs can be blocked by authorities. Computers can use TV sets as monitors. Just this past Thursday, we used a new gimmick to connect the PC I am using here to a regular television screen. It worked fine. And its price -- about $200-- is far cheaper than a traditional PC monitor.

Secondly, any networked entity, such as an Internet Service Provider or other information provider, found guilty of "publishing" (whether this means "distributing" or "enabling access to" or even "receiving" remains unclear) indecent or obscene material (definition remains to be finalized) over a computer network, thus enabling anyone under 18 to commit a thought or a sight crime, would be punished by two years in jail and $100,000 fine. Cassandrize for a moment, and these two aspects of the amendment bring to mind the image of a cybersupermarket, selling neatly packaged and barcoded thoughts and ideas, with accessibility determined perhaps by age, sex, race, income level, country of birth, or DNA indicators.

Far-fetched? Are intelligent content filers on TVs just science fiction we don't have to worry about? From the perspective of today, that peaceful schoolbusride to Sarajevo seems like science fiction. We could recreate it using VR tools available on the net today. Call it We could use Lycos and Yahoo search engines, or use the finger, to locate some of the other real classmates from that bus; the others would attend virtually, recreated from photographs and class records. We scan in images and people from Austria in 1971. For a moment, it feels almost as if the Great Record is a kind of personal immortality machine. The whole scenario becomes science fiction indeed if we pipe a news feed into, as we did with the Mandela site. Our youth and happiness of yesterday would quickly become cruel juxtapositions to the hellish tangle of Sarajevo today where the only people who profit are the weapons salesmen.

We were schoolchildren; we were literate in the technology of the time. Could we have read the signs then, and done something that would have changed the situation today? There is no question that a distributed network with open standards is a prerequisite for and in fact defines hyperliteracy. To appreciate the global communications and knowledge system we are just beginning to build, to use, to understand, then the hope for literacy lies in the direction of furthering the spread of that internetworked hyperliteracy, not in controlling, censoring and containing it. To understand what this Freedom is, and to realize when hyperliteracy is being threatened, we have to use it and know it and redefine it, and to that end, we come to Graz, the thousand year old city we can never forget, the one with the clock on a mountain in the middle.

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

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