English 482: Communicating in the digital age

What we'll talk about: a brief course description and musing on the impact of the computer age --

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.

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.  

Do computers really extend our ability to interact with friends and loved ones far away and at the same time prevent us from ever having a real conversation with anyone?  Who's right?  Is the computer the biggest thing to hit our intellectual life since the printing press?   The most important human invention since the wheel? Or is it a ticket to mindless time-wasting, the vast intellectual wasteland that is fast replacing TV as the new opiate of the masses?  Do we need to control computers and impose censorship before they control us and rot the fabric of society, or are they the ultimate liberators, defying controls and freeing everyone to be a writer, a musician, a filmmaker?

Whatever side you come down on, it's clear that computers are here to stay, that they are changing not just the way we write and talk, but the kinds of writing and speaking we engage in. In addition, they're changing our notions of public and private communication: the computer brings the outside world to our desktop and laptop, and allows us to emerge from our private cocoons and project our ideas on a global screen.  But it also invades our privacy, and allows us to intrude on others who may not welcome our presence.  It's also clear that, despite the impact of computers on our lives, they signal not the last, but only the latest communication technology that we will develop.  If speech-to-text capabilities are perfected, for example, the next step in our communication revolution could easily be the elmination of the keyboard entirely and a return to the oral composition that was so prevalent before writing became universal.

In this course, we'll try to resolve these and other apparent paradoxes that the computer has brought to the fore.  We'll also look closely at the new genres of communication that the digital computer has enabled: email, instant messaging, the blog, the web page, the space pages (MySpace and Facebook), the wiki (Wikipedia), the cell phone video and the whole YouTube phenomenon.  By the time the semester is done, new genres we have yet to imagine may be on the scene.

These electronic genres may not be entirely "literary," but they are conventional forms of writing nonetheless, and because they are soooo successful, they have brought everyday writing into focus more sharply than anything that's preceded them.  While we can only look back and guess at the development of earlier genres — the heroic and lyric poems, the novel, the diary, the memo, the drama — we are in the enviable position of being able to watch the new digital genres establish themselves as cultural practices. It’s a little like being present at the birth of stars.

This semester we will examine the impact of the new digital genres on our reading and writing practices and look at ways in which the requirements of readers and writers impact the direction of technology.  We’ll look as well at how these genres arise; what their relationships may be to earlier, more traditional genres; how they develop unique conventions and practices; how they self-regulate, moving from freewheeling anarchy toward definable forms and expected behaviors; how they deal with violations of conventional norms; and how new practitioners learn and perfect their art.  We’ll consider how the new genres create an aesthetic, a rating system that allows us to determine what counts as a good email, an effective web design, an appropriate FaceBook entry, or a blog worth reading.

Like their predecessors, the new genres also pose legal and ethical problems.  The novel was initially condemned as trivial, no better than a comic book, or should I say, a manga.  Today's genres are often dismissed as trivial as well: a Delaware court ruled in 2005 that a blog could not be libelous because no one expects to find facts on a blog. 

On the other hand, electronic discourse has become both essential and troublesome: many legitimate news and information sources maintain blogs; Google, Yahoo, and MSN.com drew international criticism for agreeing to regulate the content on Chinese web sites and email, and the USA Patriot Act permits the FBI to subpoena web and email records of American citizens; schools have expelled students for blogging and forbidden their participation on MySpace and similar sites.  MySpace has recently appointed an overseer to make sure that minors are shielded from inappropriate content.  And this year, Cornell University and the University of Illinois joined the list of colleges warning new students of the dangers of Facebook.  Yet some schools require teachers to maintain daily blogs and contact parents over email; and employers — even employers like Google — have fired employees for posts on private blogs while at the same time developing corporate blogs to sell their products and services.

Critics worry that digital genres will replace conventional ones — and to some extent their fears are justified: first-class mail is down, replaced by email, and while junk mail continues to fill our real-world mailboxes, spam fills our virtual ones even faster.  But the computer has not led to the death of the book: Borders and Barnes & Noble are full of customers, and book sales thrive (though to be sure, bookstore cafés are full of patrons using laptops, possibly ordering cheaper books from Amazon.com).  Several novels are written as email exchanges -- e-pistolary, if you will -- and it won't be long before there's an IM or blog novel as well. 

Critics warn that electronic communication is ruining the English language, yet more people than ever are writing more than ever. And skeptics fear that the more time we spend on line, the less we interact with one another face to face; yet a recent survey discovered that Americans use digital communication to maintain deep connections with friends and family, and that face to face interaction actually increases with on-line interaction. We’ll look at these apparent contradictions and try to make sense out of present practice and where it all may be heading.

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: Short essay (20%); Term project (40%); group presentation (20%); classwork (20%).

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.