Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: Technology, Rhetoric, and the Public Interest
Author: Barbara Warnick
Publisher: Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Review Published: June 2002
As Barbara Warnick states in her opening pages, her book is intended as an introduction to the rhetoric surrounding the Internet, and is aimed at "teachers, students and general readers." As an introduction, it does a solid job of presenting several case studies, and explaining how discourse about the Internet is just as important to investigate as discourse found on the Internet. Besides providing the reader with three analytical snapshots concerning online life and discourse about it, the book also gives the reader a valuable primer in understanding rhetorical analysis, and how it can be applied to digital concerns. That was especially valuable for me, as I should state up front that my academic strength lies in the study of the Internet rather than in rhetorical studies. For that reason, I address this review to Warnick's findings concerning the Internet and discourse about it, and do not engage closely with her methods of discovery.
Warnick's book is divided into three sections, addressing different areas of concern. She studies how Wired magazine constructs a vision of our digital future; the discourse surrounding calls for women to venture online in 1997; and presidential campaign Web sites from election year 2000 to determine their use of humor, and how the sites have evolved from their predecessors' open, unbounded spaces to become more carefully considered, policed and designed places. Her central argument, running throughout the book, is that we must approach the discourse surrounding the Internet critically, and the book is an attempt at teaching students and more general readers ways to understand the discourse they encounter.
Warnick begins by studying Wired magazine, a periodical that has become well known for its approach to constructing and commenting on digital culture. In fact, I was struck when Warnick commented in the beginning of the chapter that the magazine has a circulation of (only) half a million readers. While this is a large number of readers to be sure, other periodicals, including much less well-regarded ones like the Ladies Home Journal, have far greater circulations. Yet, Wired is one of the few that has entered the meta-discourse -- even if you don't read Wired you certainly know about it, and believe that it is read by those who are (presumably) influential in the new technology industry. It is also interesting to note that Wired is currently in trouble, as ad revenues have declined in the past year and the magazine has noticeably shrunk in size. How this will affect future quality and readership is unknown, but important to note, since Wired is still considered a touchstone for the digital economy.
Wired has been critiqued before, in popular accounts as well as academic articles and books, and Warnick draws on some of this literature in her study of the ideological foundations of the magazine, and how it has changed in approach over the years since its founding. By examining the layout, political leanings of the founders, articles and other aspects of the magazine, Warnick concludes that "narrative time in Wired is nearly always viewed as future oriented, as running out, as progressing toward some unknown-yet-known outcome. Its central characters are generally viewed as heroes of a sort whose ingenuity, resourcefulness, asceticism, and diligence are to be envied . . . The world envisioned by Wired's writers and readers would be free of government regulation, infused by new technology, and isolated from poverty and disease" (55). Warnick's conclusions echo Jody Berland's arguments about the confluence of discourses concerning technology and evolution in popular culture (2000), yet Warnick is much more accessible to the general reader in her argument than is Berland. Both, however, suggest that the "unstoppable nature" of technology is a key discourse deserving of critique.
Warnick ends the chapter by noting how Wired has become so good at promoting a certain world view (libertarian, free market capitalism) that it can even afford to deviate from the "party line" occasionally, such as when an article by Bill Joy was run that criticized America's uncritical advancement and adoption of new technologies. Warnick calls on Wired for more pieces like this, that fuse social responsibility with technologic concerns, written by those with particular insights into new technologies.
Warnick's strength in this chapter is her ability to sift through the enormous complexity that is Wired and distill key arguments about its rhetoric as well as rhetorical devices. However, her argument could have been strengthened through recourse to other analyses of Wired. For example, the work of Melanie Stewart Millar, Cracking the Gender Code: Who Rules the Wired World? was not mentioned but could provide valuable context and support for Warnick's assertions. Stewart Millar provides an exhaustive analysis of the construction of Wired magazine as a gendered piece of discourse, from its exclusion of women and minorities to (even more interestingly) its construction of the white male affluent reader as a "hypermacho" man, often used as the cover model, and "a symbol of technology's wonders and a testament to the joys of a digital future (1998, p. 115). As the majority of Wired's readers are (still) white men, analyses like Stewart Millar's would make Warnick's read of the influential magazine more contextual and complete.
Warnick continues by traveling back in time a bit, to examine how popular media discourse "invited women online" in 1997. This chapter is a reworking of Warnick's 1999 article for Critical Studies in Mass Communication. Warnick is here concerned with laying out the arguments that the media used in attempting to convince women to plug in and experience cyberspace for themselves. At that point, women were approximately 40% of all users, and were being courted by the traditional media to basically "just do it" and get wired up. Warnick investigates the different ways that media stories attempted to convince women to go online, and found they employed a variety of strategies, many of which were problematic in how they thought of women. For example, most appeals "valued activity, aggression, currency, technology and wealth, and they devalued their opposites -- passivity, hesitancy, convention, and poverty. The hierarchically motivated and enacted appeals thus interpellated the women in their audience in ways that may have marginalized and excluded them at the same time that they ostensibly sought to invite and include them" (71).
Warnick goes on to examine "cybergrrl" discourse that exhorts women to venture online, and critiques such sites for their overly aggressive, "just do it" tone which ignores the "economic and lifestyle realities" of many women. However, Warnick omits an important aspect of cybergrrl sites -- their history. I would argue that the cybergrrl sites and discourse are grounded in and emerge from the theoretical forerunner of cyberfeminism, drawn mainly from the work of Rosi Braidotti, Sadie Plant, and the group VNS Matrix. Plant has argued that women are naturally suited to using the Internet -- because women and the Internet are similar in nature. Both are, according to Plant, non-linear, self-replicating systems concerned with making connections. She has argued that although previous feminists have believed computers to be essentially male, we should instead see computers and the Internet as places for women to engage in new forms of work and play, where women are freed from traditional constraints and are able to play with identity and gain new avenues for claiming power and authority. Her view of cyberspace is as a welcoming familiar space for women, where they can and must seize opportunities to advance and challenge male authority.
Younger feminists such as "cybergrrls" that are active on the Internet identify less with theoretical arguments about masculinity or the similarities between women and computers, but also see the Internet as a vital space for women to "claim their territory" and use the technology to gain power and authority in contemporary society. These groups believe empowerment for women can be achieved through women's greater knowledge of new media technologies, and more opportunities to advance in these lines of work. While Warnick is correct in critiquing the overly simplistic "just do it" atmosphere found on many of these sites, identifying the links between cyberfeminism and cybergrrls is necessary for understand the emergence of cybergrrl sites, which put the theory into practice. By omitting this history, the chapter leaves a gap in understanding the history of this movement -- in both its activist and academic origins. Finally, although Warnick states that this chapter is about a certain point in history when women were challenged to go online, the chapter ends by pointing to possibilities for "the future" of cyberspace, yet does not offer more recent updates on what has happened to sites for women, or the presence of women online, in the years since the article was published.
Finally, the last chapter examines online political parody as enacted through mock presidential Web sites for the 2000 campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore. It is also an update and comparison to her earlier work examining parodic campaign sites from the 1996 presidential campaign. In making these comparisons, the chapter stands out in giving the reader a clear understanding of how conventions of Web publishing are changing over time, and the possible effects of these changes. This chapter has particular relevance, as a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle urged communication scholars to look past the traditional site of political communication -- the news -- to consider the other venues in which citizens obtain information about politics and the news of the day (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2002). In politics, television is still the dominant force for campaigns to construct and sell a candidate, but increasingly, other avenues such as the Web are emerging for political communication. Web sites such as the ones Warnick examined play an important part in imparting information as well as either challenging or reinforcing viewers' beliefs. The use of humor on these sites is important, as it likely drew in readers that would normally not visit a political web site. Warnick concludes that the most successful presidential campaign sites "carved out a textual space through interlaced patterns of reference and allusion, and they designed messages that developed progressively and produced a convergence of thought and ideology. Here many users could freely sample site content and be entertained, but they were likely to be persuaded at the same time" (113).
In conclusion, Critical Literacy in a Digital Eraprovides a solid introduction to rhetorical discourse concerning digital life and the Internet. While there are certain areas where I would have liked to have seen "more" -- either through a more recent update, more contextualization, or the inclusion of more related literature -- this must be balanced against what Warnick is trying to do -- create a book that won't send the casual reader running for the hills due to endless footnotes or impenetrable jargon. Here's hoping that many people pick up her book, people that might be new to studying the Internet, or interested in better understanding a now vital component of our lives.
Berland, Jody. (2000). Cultural technologies and the "evolution" of technological cultures. In Andrew Herman & Thomas Swiss (Eds.), The world wide Web and contemporary cultural theory (pp. 235-258). New York: Routledge.
Stewart Millar, Melanie. (1998). Cracking the gender code: Who rules the Wired world? Toronto: Second Story Press.
Williams, Bruce & Delli Carpini, Michael. (April 19, 2002). Heeeeere's democracy. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Mia Consalvo is an assistant professor in the School of Telecommunications at Ohio University. She is co-editor (with Susanna Paasonen) of the forthcoming book Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity from Peter Lang Publishers. Her current research involves the study of video games and cultural contexts of their use. <email@example.com>
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