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Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars

Author: Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, Richard Sears
Publisher: New York & London: Garland, 2000
Review Published: October 2002

 REVIEW 1: Pramod K. Nayar
 REVIEW 2: Stacy Gillis
 REVIEW 3: Betsy Huang
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Stephanie Browner

I want to thank Huang, Nayar, and Gillis for their thoughtful and thorough reviews and for identifying some of the most important issues raised by internet technology. In this short response, I want to address two of these issues in depth, not by repeating what we have said in our book, but by offering additional thoughts or information. Then, at the end, I will respond very briefly to a few other issues the reviews raise.

1. Internet as a democratizing force:

In response to our suggestion that the Internet encourages a dissemination of alternative voices, Nayar rightly reminds us that we are far from having achieved a level technology playing field. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I think all of us who write or think about technology should regularly review internet access rates around the world. For example, the Nielsen/NetRatings released last year reports the following access rates:

    Latin America 4%
    Other 8%
    Asia Pacific 20%
    U.S. and Canada 41%
    Europe, Middle East, and Africa 27%
Similarly, an article published in 2000 in The Economist notes, "of some 360m Internet users round the world, only 3.1m are thought to be in Africa, and most of them are either in South Africa or north of the Sahara. Nigeria probably has 100,000 users; Kenya, a relatively prosperous country, has even fewer."

The Internet may encourage the dissemination of alternative voices, but we are not yet hearing from many, many of the world's peoples.

2. Internet as part of a culture shift, for better or worse:

Gillis begins her review by quoting Neil Postman's 1992 warning against technopoly -- a world in which technology is deified. Indeed, the power of technology to become a value unto itself is particularly evident right now on our own campus. This year begins a "universal access" program at our small, liberal arts college. Every student is issued a laptop. Reasonable enough, it seems on the surface. Donors were eager to contribute to this project, students are very happy to get a laptop that is theirs and that they can take with them when they leave, computer clusters will no longer have long lines at the end of term when papers are due, and the program seems especially worthy on our campus since Berea College charges no tuition and admits only students who show both academic promise and economic need.

But now, with computers in every backpack and live portals in every classroom, teachers and students eagerly seek ways to use the tool they lug around all day. And administrators and donors hope to see evidence that money spent on wiring the campus has been well spent. Postman might argue that our college has become a technopoly, a culture that "seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology." And Postman may be right: teachers, administrators, staff, and students may well be finding a sense of legitimacy, satisfaction, and direction from their new computers and the easy access they offer to "all that information" on the internet. Indeed, with tool in hand, we formulate the questions we ask, and possibly, as Postman warns, we forget to ask other questions, seek answers not available on the Internet, and practice ways of thinking and knowing that have nothing to do with technology. And yet, these dangers do not, I believe, warrant a retreat from technology, just full engagement with the issues critics such as Postman raise.

I also believe that we should pay attention to the rise of technology-enthusiasm in other arenas. Rightly or wrongly, technology is increasingly offered as a solution to many world problems. For example, the United Nation's secretary-general's millennium report speaks of building "digital bridges" and of the power of the Internet to help poor countries leapfrog stages of development. The Economist editorializes that a technology infrastructure in such places as Africa will make "easy access to information" possible and thus allow farmers, traders, doctors, and voters to make more informed decisions. Technology enthusiasm is also generating big, expensive projects, and large amounts of money is being spent (by private corporations and public agencies) to connect the world. For example, a new 20,000-mile undersea fiber-optic cable system, which will form a ring of connections around Africa, is due to open in two years.

I believe that it would be very wrong to ignore the benefits that access to information and conversations (including political discourse) offer to the poor and disenfranchised. But I also believe that it is equally dangerous to ignore the problems technology does not address and may create.

3. A quick comment on a few other issues raised by the reviews: out-of-date webliographies, plagiarism, aesthetics, and print archive survival.

Yes, we knew the webliography would become dated, quickly. There is an online version available but we have not updated this, so the problem of dead links remains. There are, however, still many excellent sites on this webliography, and there are, of course, many other fine literary sites that have come online in the last two years that are not on our webliography. We did not plan to become a source for a constantly updated webliography of literary sites. There are others providing that service, including individuals in literary studies and libraries.

Plagiarism is indeed a significant concern and articles about digital plagiarism have appeared over the last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Technology and Learning, and many other journals. Some teachers are using digital tools that can detect plagiarism; some focus on redesigning assignments (in-class essays, for example); and others turn to teaching ethics and to creating an honor code. Discussions of ethics and honesty seem to me a particularly rich response to plagiarism in university settings since such discussions focus not on detection and punishment of a crime, but on larger questions -- the kind of questions colleges and universities should raise and discuss.

The aesthetics of literature on the Internet and the survival of print archives are both major concerns, especially for literary scholars, and issues we addressed briefly in our book. Conversations continue, of course, on both topics, and can be followed in the pages of literary journals such as New Literary History, editing journals such as Text: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Textual Studies, and library journals such as Progressive Librarian. All of these journals have run articles in the last year about print archives and/or textual aesthetics in a digital age.

Many thanks to David Silver and to the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at the University of Washington for hosting reviews of our book and for giving us a chance to respond. And, thanks, again, to the reviewers for their engagement with our book and for articulating important issues in cyber studies.


Stephanie Browner


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