The UVic Torch · University of Victoria Alumni Magazine · Autumn 1998

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The New Literacy

by m.c. schraefel (PhD '97)

In many programs on campus, students must satisfy an English requirement and take a course on how to write an essay. This makes sense: the essay has long been the standard form of scholarly communication.

But we have entered a period of flux in communication standards and expectations. The increasingly dominant form of communication among students and scholars alike is e-mail, not essays; information is sought in newsgroups and mailing lists and web surfing, not library stacks. In the digital world's current technologies, the essay doesn't fit. At the very least, it's uncomfortable to read an essay or a novel on a computer screen.

So, how do we write (will we call it writing?) for this New Literacy? How do we teach our students to create and communicate knowledge in this form? How do we assess that form of multimedia authorship ?

We are at a liminal moment in communication, the moment during which the old is transformed or abandoned for the new, and we have been here before.

The consequences of the printing press resulted in the dispersion of knowledge moving from the clergy to the private sector. The printing press created new markets and communications: the book trade, libraries, the press. It also fostered increased literacy, and eventually resulted in something called public education. The notion of the Writer as Author was born.

All of these attributes of literacy are now so entrenched in our way of seeing the world that we take them for granted and protect them with laws like copyrights, royalty disbursements, intellectual property acts...

But the New Literacy has changed the communications and educational landscape now just as the printing press did then, and its demands seem just as radical. The irony is that in many ways, the New Media is taking us back to a kind of existentialized pre-press way of seeing the world. Where in that day the only writer was GodÑand a Monk was but a faithful copierÑtoday, while there is no God in the Net, there is also no Author.

On-line, everything is Zeros and Ones. Give a computer the same digital sequence and it will reproduce the same result every time. Exactly. Perfectly. Just like dialing a phone number. Many different people dial exactly the same sequence of numbers and get exactly the same result.

In other words, on the Net, there are only copies. When I look at a web page, I look at a COPY of that page, never the actual thing itself, the ORIGINAL FILE. Such notions are meaningless on the Net.

The ability to make perfect copies of digital data also makes it very simple to cut and copy someone else's work from the Net and paste it into one's own, as one's own. Whether this is done in an essay or a music clip, copying is the natural form of the Web. In the Medieval period, copying was not against the law; copying was the way of the world. Copying is now again increasingly the way of the world, but it is against the law.

In academia, we call any uncredited use of another source "plagiarism" and the penalties are severe. But in the digital world-where uniqueness is physically impossible, and limited editions are unlimitable-are notions of copyright, of authorship, of uniqueness entirely sustainable?

There is no area of knowledge that is not touched by the New Media; similarly, the New Media should not proceed untouched by every other area of knowledge with which it interacts.

Imagine, then, students in Computer Science and Visual Arts; humanists and scientists in the same courses, working together on the same gnarly problems of authorship and identity, of value and representation, and imagine that they begin to build solutions. Together. Solutions that neither group could have evolved without each other's respective strengths and backgrounds.

These meetings of different minds and skills do take place in two courses I developed in UVic's faculty of Fine Arts with the support of Computer Science: Fine Arts 245 and 346. The first is a lecture course to look at new technologies and the issues surrounding technology, culture and art; the second is the hands-on lab course in which students put theory into the practice of Networked Communications.

There is a new course this year, Software Engineering 400: Computers and Society, which provides a forum for senior students across campus to engage the broader issues and ethics of the New Literacy, together.

When engineers engage the arts; when social scientists confront the practicalities of hardware, not only do students gain breadth in their education and practical opportunity for their future careers, they also contribute to the shaping of the New Literacy.

We have much to learn from how this generation will use these tools to shape how we come to see and interact with our increasingly cyber world. We are fortunate to be in a position to help pose the questions to focus that practice.

monica schraefel received her UVic PhD in computer science and fine arts in 1997. When not researching or teaching, she writes songs and performs with her "Hungry Band." That's her on the motorcycle.

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