October 3, 2014


Mark Bernstein

Eastgate Systems, Inc. 134 Main Street, Watertown MA 02472 USA


Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 7 (2), 2010. pp. 45-7

Seven years have passed since Philip Pullman warned in his Isis lecture that the dominant emotion in modern education was fear [1], and disabling anxiety continues to distort our approach to The Digital. Some of our fears are external and systemic; students worry about exams, instructors worry about standardized tests, everyone worries about funding, budgets, and lawsuits. The terrible economic climate for scholars – bad enough in the boom times of 2003 but exacerbated now by a deep global recession – freights every curricular decision with the fear career-ending consequences, as much for instructors as for students.

Fear of The Digital runs deep. The research literature is constantly looking over its shoulder, anticipating hurt or harm. Google is rewiring our brains [2]. Reading is at risk [3]. The end of the newspaper, of the magazine, of the bookstore, of literary culture itself, is nigh. Libraries replace books with Internet terminals, and then engage in an endlessly futile quest to prevent patrons from reading about sex. We deplore that access to computers is restricted to an elite, but when computers become broadly available to our students we are obsessed with filtering pornography and the study of computer-mediated bullying.

Our fears are nowhere more visible than in our idiosyncratic compulsion to repeatedly study the same tired, settled questions. Do computers improve writing?[4] Do links improve reading?[5] We have funded countless studies, and consistently rediscover modest effects that (remarkably enough) almost always coincide with the inclinations of the investigator. Impatient of our conclusion, Society rushed out and formed its own opinion, and its judgment could not be clearer. Almost no writer today chooses to work without a computer, save as a performative gesture; almost no employer pays professional writers to use pen and paper; almost no researcher fails to consult the Web. When we cannot demonstrate that computers improve writing or that links help us learn, we ascribe the defect to The Digital — using our spreadsheets to run the statistics, using our word processors to write the paper, and then emailing the fresh publication to our provost and grant officer.

Like the ancient Greeks who named the treacherous Black Sea “the Hospitable Sea,” we manage our anxieties by keeping Digital cute, small, and distant. We fill our electronic books with elaborately animated page curls and sepia inks not seen in a book store for centuries, while neglecting the readerly and writerly uses to which they will be put [6]. Our software is filled with skeuomorphic nostalgia for an imagined past, as the wire binding of our electronic notebook and the chads of discarded pages of our electronic  calendar are lovingly reproduced on our screens.  In place of its former enthusiasm for the promise of new forms, new media scholarship is increasingly concerned with archiving fragments of the recent past, that lost, golden age when we were sixteen. We assume that programming is an obscure, specialized, superfluous skill.

Worse, we seem to have lost confidence in the central promise of hypertext scholarship: its ability to let us (and our students) participate with parity [1] in the ongoing discourse of ideas. Twenty years ago, Latin teachers were helping to build Perseus [7] and undergraduates were fleshing out The Victorian Web [8]. Today, most of their work this resides outside the academy in Facebook or in the private gardens behind university firewalls.  Student contributions to new media not only used to contribute to the discussion, but led it [9] [10].  Driven by concern for student privacy and fearing the consequences of exposure to political and religious activists, we have allowed student writing to retreat once more into the sandbox. Fearful of retribution by google-proficient future employers, most students have been willing to pretend that their work is mere play.  

This is neither necessary nor acceptable. We hold in our hands the literary machines for which we have striven for a generation and for which past generations longed. We should use them without fear, and if we cannot, we should take care that the children do not see the irrational fears we cannot control but of which we are, or should be, ashamed.

[1] Philip Pullman, Isis Lecture, Oxford Literary Festival, 2003. http://www.philip-pullman.com/assets_cm/files/PDF/isis_lecture.pdf

[2] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.

[3] National Endowment for the Arts,Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, research division report #46, 2004.

[4] J. Kelley, Annette Kratcoski, and Karen McClain, “The Effects of Word Processing Software on the Writing of Students with Special Needs,” Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology 2(2) 2006 pp. 32-43

[5] Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, “Cognitive load in hypertext reading: A review,” Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007) pp. 1616–1641

[6] Catherine C.Marshall,Reading and Writing the Electronic Book (Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and Services). Morgan and Claypool, 2009.

[7] Gregory Crane. “From the Old to the New: Integrating Hypertext into Traditional Scholarship”, HYPERTEXT '87: Proceedings of the ACM conference on Hypertext, pages 51-57, New York, NY, USA : ACM Press, 1987.

[8] George P. Landow,  Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization,. Johns Hopkins Press. 2006.

[9] Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl, Eastgate Systems, 1995.

[10] Mary Kim Arnold, “Lust”, Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext 1(2), 1993.