I Used the Internet

Today in Digital Rhetoric, we’re covering the history of the internet in about 35 minutes.  Considering that some programs devote an entire course to this, I am feeling the pressure to make the lesson meaningful and informative.

I like to focus on the origins of the internet, ARPAnet, and its links to the military-industrial complex. To me, a lot of the issues we face today are rooted in the internet’s early focus on connecting research institutions engaged in the Space Race.

At the same time, I want to talk about some of the cool stuff that the early internet afforded. For example, MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) created spaces for people to meet and play.  For example, when I lived in Scotland in the mid-1990s, telnet allowed me to meet up with my friends back home and chat for free.


I also remember using Mosaic. In the early 90s, my high school received a grant for internet access and education. Below, is a good example of what “surfing” the web looked like back then.  I remember waiting entire minutes for a page to load if it had a lot of images. At the same time, I took a rudimentary coding class in which we learned the basics of HTML and LINUX. And, while I resented taking these classes at the time (Why do I need to learn programming? I’m going to be an English major?!), I still use these skills today.


Today, we take the glitzy interface of the web for granted.  Even WYSIWYG software like that which runs this WordPress blog hides the architecture that holds the internet together.  I reminds me of HGTV shows like House Hunters in which people walk through a home and complain about the paint and the carpet.  In many ways, I think this exactly what Karl Stolley addresses in the Lo-Fi Manifesto.

By understanding the relationship between the web and the internet and the history of the development of both, we can begin to see how issues of access, race, gender, and corporate interest play out today.

On a Bus. On a Phone.

Last time I took a Greyhound bus, I was 21 years old. Suffice it to say, it’s been a while. I am composing the post on a bus between Milwaukee and Chicago listening to The Clash. I’m typing with my thumbs on my Smart Phone (See Arroyo’s “thumb writing”).

I remember my last trip on the bus because it was my senior year at Alma cupCollege. I was traveling to visit friends in Chicago despite the fact that I was writing an Honor’s thesis. On that trip, my backpack (a green Jansport and tres 90s chic) was full of printed JStor articles that I read furiously for hours. I scribbled in margins and took hasty notes.

My research process remains largely unchanged. I still prefer to print articles.  I don’t start with JStor anymore, but I still search there. The biggests change is the ubiquity of Wifi. I can start my search anywhere.

For people who matriculated before the 1990s, their research processes may have changed drastically. The library has evolved from a physical warehouse to a multi-access-hub for information.  But more than that, the sheer quantities of information available are staggering.  How do we weed through all of this? Or, more importantly, how do we teach students how to weed through all of this data? As a writing teacher, I think I need to start paying more attention to information literacies. I usually cover Boolean search logic, but I’m not sure this is enough.

Then again, maybe I need to reflect on my own process. I often cast a wide net and refine. Is that always the best process? Does it make sense for the kinds of writing I ask my students to do?

Perhaps grounding the discussion of research in rhetoric would help. We need to move beyond ethos/pathos/logos and authority.  Or, we shouldn’t stop there. Instead, we should look at how databases and websites categorize themselves.  What do tags and search terms say about the author’s perception of audience and use.

This reminds me of DeVoss and Rodolfo’s rhetorical velocity. When we use databases, we access data created expressly for reuse. That’s kinda the whole point of research! What if we asked students to interrogate an article’s success at categorizing itself?

My Dad Doesn’t Use the Internet or a Cell Phone

I’m traveling around this Mid-West this summer. The twist is that I’m complete dependent on ride-sharing and public transportation. So far, someone stole my Beats (my fault), people have shouted, and men have said gross stuff to me and other female passengers.  At the same time. I’ve met some really nice people – a Sister of Loretto gave me a holy medal and a bus driver paid part of a fair for two disabled women who were a dollar short. A lot of this travel has been made easy by the internet. I can consult my friends and book my tickets as I make my next steps.  I’ve had my friends print my tickets at their jobs.  It’s been really nice.

Now, I’m preparing to go to my dad’s place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Of 1571401665_ac5a6d6d67course, his house is so rural, he has to drive an hour to pick me up from the bus. Here’s the rub – he has neither the internet nor a cell phone.  So, I can’t just give him an address that he can plug into Google Maps and print off the directions. I can’t talk him in with my own directions via cell. He needs step by step directions. This means, I am going to call him on his landline tonight, look at the directions of Google Maps, and he is going to write them down.

Say yah to da UP, eh!

Plagues, Viruses, and the Internet

One of my ongoing research interests is the way in which metaphors shape the way we think about the interwebs.  For example, we often describe technological changes as revolutions, breakthroughs, or cutting edge. These kinds of metaphors may mask the ways in which the interwebs are not revolutionary and recapitulate existing inequalities.

Nevertheless, one of my favorite metaphors is the virus/plague/meme metaphor. In 16th Century England, authors often compared the spread of unregulated books to the spread of disease. Similarly, we describe unwanted programs as viruses that infect our machines. This metaphor makes sense to us because plagues and viruses spread without our control.

Like viruses, images, news stories, and memes proliferate on the internet without our control. For example, historian Monica Green from Arizona State Leprosy_victims_taught_by_bishopUniversity recently found that a Medieval illustration is often used online to describe the Black Death.  However, the image actually depicts clerks with leprosy being taught by a Bishop.Green and her colleagues traced the error back to a catalog mistake at the British Library: “While art historians have long known what this image portrays, it was mislabeled as a plague image when the British Library’s digitization process removed it from its original textual context” (Jones). In other words, the error is replicated online over and over because one librarian made a simple mistake.

Errors are not new to publishing.  After all, just looking at the Hamlet Quarto Project shows you how easily errors, changes, and typos can appear in printing. Or, in the infamous Wicked Bible (1631), the printers forgot a small word and the Eighth Commandment suddenly read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Mistakes happen.  However, digital publishing can make these errors widespread. What’s more, when an image or error is uploaded to Wikipedia, the mistake is perceived as truth.

At the same time, the affordances of digital media allow us to fix these errors.  A mislabeled image in Wikipedia can be easily removed or relabeled by anyone with an internet connection and the knowledge. Conversely, an error may circulate for years because the Tudor kings and queens were right – information is like a virus.

Bullying Has No Boundaries

The news is full of stories about young people being bullied to the point of self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, John Hughes‘s movies (Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club) rely on the tension of the bullied vs. the popular.

The big difference today is the constant presences of the interwebs. While Molly Ringwald can curl up in her bedroom and decide not to answer the phone, many students today cannot escape the hate. As their peers post hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter, their phones buzz every time. The tiny chime indicating that you have a new message may begin to feel like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”

The Canadian Safe School Network recently produced a video of young people reading mean tweets. 

They are playing with Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segment. When famous actors and athletes read petty comments, we laugh because their success demonstrates how ridiculous the comments are.  However, the humor found in Kimmel’s show falls apart when vulnerable teenagers read tweets about themselves.

Dealing with mean tweets is more difficult for teens. Teenagers do not have the resilience developed through decades of life. Worse than that, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have to face her haters every day in class. She does not have to experience teachers turning a blind eye, or worse participating in bullying. Teens are vulnerable and still shaping their identities. In the digital age, part of that identity is online. Unfortunately, bullying has expanded to make no space safe.

Digital Literacy

I vividly remember getting our first computer. It was 1995 and I was a senior in high school.  My mother ordered a Gateway computer because it was a good computer and she liked the cow print box gimmick. She placed the computer in the space between our kitchen and living room so everyone could use it.

The machine changed our lives. Instead of retreating to our rooms alone, my brother and I stayed out with our parents to fight over computer time. Sometimes, we had to negotiate time with our mother! The dial up hand shake gave me a thrill.

I was lucky. My mom loved technology and made it a priority in our family. I didn’t get my own car, but I had the internet.

How each of us comes to digital literacy can be radically different. In Literate Lives in the Information Age, Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher share stories of digital literacy (we’re reading at least one of them in a month or so). At the end of the book, Selfe and Hawisher provide the questionnaire that they used to generate these narratives. You may find some of their questions fruitful as you blog about digital rhetoric.

Selected Questions from Literate Lives:

  1. If your family had a computer at home when you were growing up, can you tell us a story of buying the computer? Who bought it? When? Why?
  2. Can you tell us how much the computer cost? Can you talk about how significant/serious that investment was in terms of your family’s regular budget?
  3. Tell the story of how you first learned to use the computer at school: What was your motivation? Age? Who helped? How did they help? What kids of support did you have? In what classes did you learn to use the computer? How much access did you have to a computer per day/week/month?
  4. What did your teachers/the school you went to think about computers? What values did they place on this activity? On your participation? On their role? Do you have any stories you can tell us that would illustrate the value of the educational system placed on computers or computer literacy?
  5. Do you currently have access to a computer someplace other than at home? Where (workplace, school)? When? For how long? How do you get there? How much does it cost to use this computer?

Access, Access, Activism

Current debates about net neutrality have gone largely unnoticed. Ironically, this is something everyone who uses the web should be marching in the streets about. I think John Oliver sums up the issue quite well here:

Inaction could mean that corporations like Comcast and Time Warner could control how we access information. If we think about the current affordances of digital media, access to high speed internet is essential. Streaming music, video, and cat gifs all require a huge amount of bandwidth.

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Victor Pickard compares current battles for net neutrality to 1940s battles for free radio. Pickard reminds us that our current system in which a few corporations have a strangle hold on our bandwidth is the result of decades of policy decisions:

“As we again set policies that define core power relationships for a new medium, we might look to our past to discern lessons for charting our future. For the media system we’ve inherited—one dominated by a small number of corporations, lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections, and offset by weak public alternatives—was not inevitable or natural; it resulted from the outcomes of specific policy battles, and from specific logics and values triumphing over others.”

In other words, we’ve created a situation in which ISPs have this much control. Now may be our last opportunity to stop their monopoly.

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