English 482: Communicating in the digital age

Dennis Baron

Fall 2012

Mon and Weds, 3:30 - 4:45 pm
104 English
office: 251 English
office hours: M & W 1:00 to 2:00 pm
and by appointment

office phone: 2157-305-0067
email me

There is no doubt that the digital revolution has penetrated every aspect of our communication processes. Most of us do all of our writing on keyboards and much of our talking takes place on a cell phone, when we're not using it to text.

These changes in our reading, writing and talking practices have inspired both enthusiasm and fear.  Computers are praised as tools for democratizing information and liberating the oppressed, for leveling class and gender distinctions, for expanding the frontiers of knowledge and bringing both enlightenment and a better life to everyone. Yet they are also condemned as tools for controlling information flow, restricting access to knowledge, subjugating the world's oppressed, increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots, spreading lies, fraud and disinformation, and condemning us all to a life of ignorance and carpal tunnel syndrome. . .  read more

Attendance: This is a discussion course. Your informed presence is essential. Excessive absence and poor preparation (in other words, failure to read the assignments in time for class discussion) will affect your final grade.

Plagiarism: The digital revolution may be changing how we think of intellectual property (we'll look at this issue in detail in this course), but even digitally-enabled academic culture requires us to acknowledge all of our sources and to do our own work. 

Writing: There will be one short essay and a longer project tailored to the student’s interest.

Reading: All readings will be available online.

Grading: Term project (60%); group presentation (20%); participation (20%).

Read The Web of Language: it's the go-to site for language in the news; bookmark the Web of Language in your browser or newsfeed.


Week 1

Mon Aug 27: How do technology and literacy interface?

Watch: Medieval help desk


Watch: Typewriter accessory for the iPad:



Remington typewriter 1875

This ad for a Remington "type-writer" appeared in the Nation in 1875. It is pitched as the next big thing, a substitute for the drudgery of the pen, and a boon to women.

Wed Aug 29: Writing it down

In the Phaedrus, Socrates warns against writing because it will destroy memory, but we remember what he said because Plato wrote it down. Was Socrates right? Do new technologies destroy our ability to use older ones?

Read: Baron, "Preface"
Baron, “Writing it down.”
excerpt from the Phaedrus

Writing it down slides

Week 2

Mon Sep 3: Labor Day -- no class

Wed Sep 5: Theories of literacy

We privilege the written word, but often for the wrong reasons. Are there cognitive differences between speech and writing? Does writing convey advantages that speech doesn't? Is the common distinction between oral and literate societies really appropriate?

Read: Olson, "Demythologizing Literacy."

Speech is older than writing, yet we tend to think of writing now as more important, more permanent, and more valid than speech. How did this strange situation come to be? How do technologies of communication spread through a society? How do we learn to trust the technologies and the texts that they produce? How do we adopt and adapt those technologies to our communication needs? How does a technology move from interesting curiosity to something that we can't do without? Is the computer unique in this regard, or just one of many such inventions?

Excerpt from Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques: "A Writing Lesson."

Week 3

Mon Sep 10: Writing on clay: a messy workshop experience.

Wed Sep 12: Why do we fear new technologies?

Read Baron, “TeknoFear”
Crain, "Twilight of the Books"

Week 4

Mon Sep 17: Rosh Hashanah -- no class

Wed Sep 19: The threat of a new technology.

Read: Baron, "Thoreau's pencil"
Bill Henderson, "No E-Mail from Walden"

Sign up for group projects.

Week 5 The promise of the new technology

Mon Sep 24: The age of the computer

Read: Friedrich, “The PC – Time Magazine’s Machine of the Year.”
Roszak, “Shakespeare never lost a manuscript to a computer crash”

Wed Sep 26: Yom Kippur -- no class

Week 6 Learning to write and read in the digital age

Mon Oct 1: The rise of word processing.

Read: Baron, "When WordStar was king."

Wed Oct 3: Trusting the text

Counterfeit, plagiary and fraud abound on the Internet, yet people adopt the new communication technologies in spite of it all.

Read: Baron, "Trusting the text."

Week 7 Writing online

Mon Oct 8: The new digital genres

Each new communication technology brings with the opportunity not just to recreate old messages using new tools, but also allows us to develop new genres and modes for our words. The printing press enabled the novel, the newspaper, and paper money, for example. What are the new genres of digital communication? What is a genre, anyway, and how is the term applicable to these forms of writing and talking? How do modes like email, the instant message, and the blog, which are created essentially without rules, coalesce into definable genres that can be practiced and taught?

Read Baron, "Writing on screen."

:) when you say that, pardner: Email and the urbanizing of the electronic frontier

Wed Oct 10: no class today

But here is the lecture: #twitterrevolution: destabilizing the world 140 characters at a time.

and here are the slides.

Week 8 Technology’s impact on reading and authorship

Mon Oct 15: The death of the book?

In 1494 Johannes Trithemius, Abbott of Sponheim, wrote that the copying of manuscripts was superior to printing:

The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell.

Yes, many books are now available in print but no matter how many books will be printed, there will always be some left unprinted and worth copying. . . . The devoted scribe. . . will guarantee permanence to useful printed books by copying them. Otherwise they would not last long. His labor will render mediocre books better, worthless ones more valuable, and perishable ones more lasting. . . . He is by no means defeated by the printer; he must not cease copying just because the art of printing has been invented.

Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance. . . . Copying by hand involves more diligence and industry.

[In praise of scribes, Ch. 7] With no sense of irony, Trithemius recognized that the new technology of print could reach a wider audience, so he had his essay about copying by hand printed on a press.

Read: Kevin Kelly, "Scan this book!"
John Updike, "The end of authorship."
Anthony Grafton "Onward and upward with the arts."

Geoffrey Nunberg critiques the Google Book Project: "Google's Book Search: A disaster for scholars."

Grafton speaks at the Chicago Humanities Festival on the "Past, Present, and Future of the Book":

Wed Oct 17: Text in the age of digital reproduction.

Read: Walter Benjamin, "Art in the age of mechanical reproduction."

Geoffrey Nunberg: "Farewell to the Information Age."

Week 9

Mon Oct 22: The digital divide: the impact of race, class, gender, and location.

Readings for today: “Gender on the Net."
PIP: How Women and Men Use the Internet

Ono and Zavodny, "Gender and the Internet"

Hargittai and Shafer, "Differences in Actual and Perceived Online Skills: The Role of Gender"

Wasserman and RIchmond-Abbott, "Gender and the Internet: Causes of Variation in Access, Level, and Scope of Use."

David Bamman, Jacob Eisenstein, and Tyler Schnoebelen, "Gender in Twitter: Styles, Stances, and Sociall Networks"

Term project assignment

Wed Oct 24: Should everybody write?

Read: Baron, Everyone's an author

Baron, Should everybody write?

Week 10

Mon Oct 29: The digital revolution and the schools

Read: Cuban, "Oversold and underused."

Todd Oppenheimer, The Computer Delusion

PEW, "Digital Disconnect"

Wed Oct 31: Another network -- from wired phone to smart phone

Read: Baron, Cell phone scenarios

Week 11 SocialNets

Mon Nov 5: Mon Oct 29: Read: #twitterrevolution: destabilizing the world 140 characters at a time

Join or die or follow us on Twitter

Baron, "A space of one's own."
PIP report on the Net and social ties
PIP report on Internet users

YouTube censorship

When censorship makes sense

Excerpt from Castells, Networks of outrage and hope.

Wed Nov 7: Privacy on the web:

Read: Siva Vaidyanathan: "Naked in the Nonopticon"

Read: excerpt from Engaging privacy and information technology

Week 12 Free speech and censorship

Mon Nov 12:

Read: excerpt from Ronald Delbert, et al, "Access denied: The practice and policy of global internet filtering

Plaintiffs win round in Patriot Act Lawsuit

National Security Letter in Doe v. Gonzales

Section 2709 of the Patriot Act

Wed Nov 14: Intellectual property and fair use

Read: Stuart P. Green, "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law."

Read: excerpt from Lewis Hyde, Common as air: Revolution, art, and ownership. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Nov. 17-25 Fall Break

Week 13 The new critique of the digital revolution

Mon Nov 26: Read: Jonathan Zittrain, Introduction and Part I of The future of the internet and how to stop it. (The link will take you to the book website, and you can download a pdf there.

Read: James Curran, "Reinterpreting the internet." (from James Curran, Natalie Fenton, and Des Freedman, Misunderstanding the Internet, Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

Wed Nov 28: Read: Nicholas Carr, "Is Google making us stupid?"

Read: excerpt from Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget (New York: Knophf, 2010).

Week 14

Mon Dec 3:

Presentation: Facebook, Twitter, and the socialnets; Nathalie Rock, Jaclyn Marta, Mitch Reeter, Elise Harmening

Presentation: Writing online: Emily Sniegowski, Caleb Friend, Margarita Altidis

Wed Dec 5:

Presentation: Intellectual property in the age of digital reproduction: Yevgeniya Funk, Tommy Doyle, Samantha Randolph, Max Ellithorpe

Presentation: The digital revolution and the schools: Isabel Morales, Jen Baldassare, Tyler Blanchette, Sofiya Pershteyn

Week 15

Mon Dec 10:

Presentation: The dark side of the web: Mary Hall, Sophia Bayer, Maribel Castro, Kyungho Lee

Presentation: Censorship and the internet: Rubayya Hoque, Kelsey Bosch, Natalie Mares, Collie Snyder

Wed Dec 12:

Presentation: The digital divide Irini Losoff, Grace Luk, Nate Hartmann

Presentation: Privacy on the internet: Caroline Kionka, Lynda Sherman, Kristoffer Sheehy, Carleen Sacris

Dec 15: Your final paper is due by 5 pm today, preferably via email.

Group projects: I ask each of you to sign up for a 3-4 person group presentation. Plan for a talk that is about 45 minutes long, one that will generate activities and discussion for the rest of the class period. It is up to each group to allocate responsibility for identifying subtopics and coordinate the presentation. I will suggest some supplementary class readings for the topics. Presenters should provide us with factual information but not tell us what we already know. You should always analyze your subject and assess its significance. And you should prepare a series of questions to focus class discussion following your presentation. Your presentation may take any number of forms, from illustrated lecture/discussion to powerpoint to video -- by all means use whatever technologies we have available to enhance the material -- but all presentations should go beyond the simple reporting of information and include both analysis and interpretation of the subject under discussion. Your final paper may grow out of some aspect of your group report topic, so I urge you to pick your presentation area carefully. But to ensure coverage, not everyone may get their first choice of presentation topics, so don’t feel that you are locked into doing a final paper on that topic. We’ll talk in class about kinds of topics you might pick for the final paper, and there will be a handout on choosing topics as well. In addition to resources that you will find on your own (strongly recommended), you may also find useful data and analysis in the many reports of the Pew Internet in American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/index.asp

Presentation Topics:

1. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the socialnet. An offshoot of the blog that combines features of diary, resume, billboard, photo album, and record collection, the social networking sites sharply underline the generation gap that we have come to associate with the digital revolution. Wildly popular on campuses, among teens, and young adults, these opportunities to combine self-expression with unsolicited advertising have captivated users, who check their pages many times a day and have begun to use them instead of email or IM for communication. But activity is not all age-graded. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is adults over 35, for example. Schools and employers now fear social networking as they once feared blogs, IM, and email before them. What characterizes a Facebook page? A Twitter feed? How have these genres developed and where are they heading? How are they becoming subject to overisght, control, and commercialism?

2. Writing online:Wikipedia, fan fic, digital literature, and other forms of web-enabled and collaborative writing. The wiki allows an open or closed group of writers to collaborate on a project, one as small as a report or as large as Wikipedia itself, the online encyclopedia that seeks to become our chief source of information, and that draws praise for its democratic approach to writing while at the same time is slammed for its tolerance of inaccuracy. Urban Dictionary is another kind of collaborative, and there are many more. Explore the writing space -- the sandbox, as Wikipedia refers to it -- that is enabled by the computer and the Net.

3. Intellectual property in the age of digital reproduction. The printing press mechanized the reproduction of words and images to allow for the mass production and dissemination of ideas. With the coming of the press, print "factories" turned out words the same way that Henry Ford's factories would later turn out automobiles. One result of the print revolution was a rethinking of the nature of authorship and the ownership of words. The digital revolution adds a new spin to textual reproduction, producing more and more readers and more and more creators of text, sound and image. And it too is changing our notions of who owns the digital property -- the words, sounds, and images -- that's on the Web. Is the notion of the author dead or dying? Is copyright going the way of clay tablets? Will plagiarism be decriminalized as we upload and download everything from mp3 files and torrents of the latest Harry Potter to term papers and episodes of Law and Order?

4.The digital revolution and the schools. Education has always looked to technology to supplement, and sometimes to replace, face to face instruction. While schools continue to invest in computers and hop on the Internet bandwagon, critics argue that faith in computers as educational tools is misplaced, that students and teachers, while they use the machines, are using them not so much to "do lessons" as to do other things. Critics point as well to the failed educational technologies of the past: radio, film, the filmstrip, the VCR, and televised instruction. Is the computer going to meet the fate of its predecessors? Or will it bring literacy to a knowledge-hungry world?

5. The dark side of the web. The Internet offers vast amounts of information and unlimited opportunities for writing and reading, but like all literacy technologies, it carries with it danger as well as opportunity. In what ways do digital technologies differ from their predecessors in offering a voice to spammers, scammers, criminals, kooks, weirdoes, perverts, molesters, terrorists and fanatics?

6. Censorship and the internet. All technologies of communication bring with them the question of regulation. Writing (literacy in general) offers us access to knowledge, but like the bite of the first apple, sometimes too much knowledge, or knowledge about forbidden subjects, is considered dangerous. Historically, writing may be liberating, but it also brings with it censorship (the First Amendment protects free speech, but not all speech is covered by its protection). Is the Internet any different in that regard? Many countries already limit what their citizens can see and do on line. It’s not always repressive regimes like those associated with Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba, where the internet is perceived as a tool for dissidents and revolutionaries. France and Germany, too, place restrictions on what is available online in their web spaces. US legislators are greatly concerned with protecting what children can have access to online, and child pornography on the net is illegal pretty much world-wide. Should the Net be an “anything goes” environment or one that is regulated? What forms of control exist for conventional technologies; what regulations need to be in place in the digital world? Do we need to put controls in place or can we rely on users of the Net to police themselves? How much censorship is enough? How much is too much?

7. The digital divide. Are computers creating a world of haves and have nots separated by a digital divide? Is the anonymity that digital communication affords an opportunity to level the playing field or to commit fraud, theft, and deception? Is the digital world a safe or a dangerous space? Is it gender-neutral? Is it bringing us together or isolating us further from one another? Is the English language threatening to take over cyberspace in the same ways that it has taken over the global economy? How are Americans using the internet?

8. Privacy on the Internet. Technologies of communication always involved a tradeoff: we sacrifice privacy for the advantages of going further out into the wide, wide world. The Internet and the cell phone are reconfiguring our notions of public and private. The World Wide Web offers us a window on the world, bring unprecedented amounts of information to our desktop. Yet at the same time, our presence on the Net allows observers to gather all sorts of information about us: our searches, our very keystrokes become public information, exposing us as never before to the prying eyes of marketers and government agents. Have we entered the “1984” big-brotherism that Orwell feared so much, where a camera is always on us, a microphone monitors our speech, a trackpad sucks data from our fingertips? Or are we simply giving up an unimportant aspect of our privacy for the advantages that surfing provides?