Eighth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

I will be presenting my paper, “Alternate Reality Scholarship,” at the Eighth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities.

The conference runs from June 29th to July 2, 2010. Watch this space or consult the the program schedule for more details as they become available.

Abstract: “Alternate Reality Scholarship: The Shadow Academy and the Future of Academic Publishing”

Scholarly publication models based on scarcity of resources and opaque peer review processes no longer make sense in the context of a massively-networked information society. Digital publication and syndication costs next to nothing, and while the importance of curatorial gatekeeper authorities is arguably greater now than ever before, the notion of intentionally restricting discourse and debate to closed cliques of reviewers seems ridiculous and counter-productive in light of the existence of vast self-assembling online communities of engaged and informed reader-contributors. Unfortunately, however, publication models that embrace and leverage social media technologies and open information ecosystems have yet to find wide acceptance within the mainstream of the academy, particularly in the humanities. Concerns about intellectual property, the quality and substance of discourse, and the refereeing of debate have brought about a “wait-and-see” attitude that threatens to preserve an inefficient and stultifying status quo. Meanwhile, outside of the traditional centers of scholarly publication, lively new forms of discussion, debate and intellectual production have blossomed on blogs, discussion threads, wikis, social networking platforms and other so-called Web 2.0 manifestations. Further, as has been amply demonstrated by canonical communal efforts such as Wikipedia and Linux, early fears about quality and accuracy have fallen by the wayside, with online crowds demonstrating a much stronger affinity towards productive order than meaningless chaos. This explosion in knowledge production outside the traditional submission/review/publication stream constitutes a kind of “Shadow Academy” whose ability to generate, iterate and disseminate ideas greatly outpaces that of the scholarly press. Drawing on examples from a variety of multimodal online knowledge communities, including social media technology development, Cornell University’s arXiv project, and alternate reality gaming subcultures such as the Cloudmakers, this paper will discuss how and why the Shadow Academy has already become the dominant force in scholarly publication, and will open a discussion about how scholars and institutions can shape the future of this crucial knowledge-making endeavor.

Abstract also available here.

Code and Materiality: Strandbeest and mechanical computing

Johanna Drucker’s discussion of code and materiality (“Code is not an immaterial ideal“) got me thinking about Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest project:

Jansen’s Strandbeests are the product of an iterative programming process that completely collapses the supposed boundary between materiality and code. The intricate interlocking wooden components of these lumbering giants constitute simple circuits, storage devices and if/then statements that govern the way the “animals” move and respond to their environment; like a traditional software designer, the Strandbeests’ “programmer” deploys certain arrangments of form, sees what works and what doesn’t (beta testing), then “re-codes” to make the animals more likely to survive and prosper. Jansen himself considers his Strandbeests a kind of ALife project wherein new forms are “evolved” and the “winning codes multiply.” Physical computing projects like this (and this is clearly one of the most radical of its kind, given that the Strandbeests use no electronics whatsoever) are provocative examples of Drucker’s contention that “form is constitutive of information, not its transparent presentation.” (139)

Leaving magical Strandbeest beach aside for the moment, I wonder how other non-electronic digital systems complicate or compliment some of the thinking we’ve been doing this week about code and protocol. In particular, I’m curious to see if moving around or beyond our contemporary notion of what constitutes computation might address some of the ambiguities Mei identified regarding commonly-held definitions of the digital and the virtual. Charles Babbage’s famous Difference Engine (a programmable mechanical computer from 1847), Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner, clockwork astrolabes like the incredible Antikythera Mechanism or the lesser-known but perhaps coolest-of-all pocket-sized Curta Calculator each exhibit very different kinds of graphesis (or maybe we should coin a new word here: antikemenesis?) — where is the “code” when it cannot be separated from the mechanical processes that articulate it?

David Golumbia, buzzkiller

I’m excited about all the new forms of politics, art and mischief that participatory technoculture seems to promise. I can get genuinely pumped-up about Kurzweilian “singularities,” the Planetary Society and the Long Now Foundation. Sometimes I actually think things could be turning around for humanity.

Of course, there’s plenty of reason for pessimism. Even the most fundamental threats to our existence as a species go unchallenged. Still, I like to hold out hope that we’ll come up with ways to deal with the converging crises that confront us. I’m willing to run with the idea that the incredible affordances of the Internet and ubiquitous computing, while they are undeniably the fruits of a neoliberal elite hell-bent on solidifying their grip on the mechanisms of power through whatever means necessary, actually will have an empowering and emancipatory and ultimately positive effect, an emergent effect with assymmetric consequences unanticipated by the forces of Capital — a kind of upbeat blowback…

To uberpessimist David Golumbia, such thinking is wrong on two counts: first, the world is fucked, full stop. There’s no hope, just pack it in and roll over. Capital will inexorably leverage the immense communication and participation potential of the Internet and social media to its own advantage, using that power organize, mobilize and enslave. Eventually we’ll all end up with chips in our brains, consuming the products of the cannibalistic corporations to which we have subsumed our souls. We as critics must identify this problem and write about it — for which we will score points in the afterlife.

Second, trying to do anything about it will only make it worse. Golumbia might argue that even just calling the Internet the Internet reveals the depth of one’s imbrication in the “feeling and fact of mastery” that technology provides. Put another way, computationalism does not belong to us; rather, we belong to it. Any enthusiasm about technology’s promise is self-deceived nonsense that only serves to strengthen the hand of capitalism:

Among the oddest but most telling of the cultural changes accompanying the computer revolution is the one that emerges out of the late I960s social movements, in which a significant segment of youthful intelligentsia embraced the computer as a revolutionary technology that might transform the world along some of the same lines suggested by the counterculture in general (see Turner 2006 for an especially pointed history). In retrospect we can see that this has to be one of the most successful instances of co-optation in the history of social movements; for despite their appearance of transformative power, it is the ability of the computer to expand the feeling and fact of mastery that is most compelling about it. Much like their extended experiments with the profoundly capitalist medium of rock music and profoundly self-gratifying mind-altering substances-visible especially as the supposedly cognitively liberating psychedelic substances gave way to destructive and strongly isolating substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin-the counterculture was unable to escape the capitalist and hierarchical strand of dominant American culture it thought itself to be resisting. In the end, this revolution became about exactly the individualistic power it said it was resisting, in no small part via the embracing of a technology that wears its individualist expansionism on its sleeve. (153)

This text is super-depressing and seems to leave no room for optimism about a future that, like it or not, is going to have a lot to do with computational systems and network culture. While Golumbia does a good job of dishing out some straight talk about the horrific mobility and insidious reach of “individualist expansionism” and the vectors along which the computationalist worldview transmits itself, something really important seems to be missing here. Maybe it’s just that Golumbia’s overall vision seems a little angsty-adolescent. I mean, the world is a fucking mess, yes, absolutely — but come on, David, don’t give up!

Sid Sackson’s Acquire

Since its release in the early 1960s, Acquire has inspired generations of game designers and enthusiasts with its elegant and replayable design. Many game designers, including Ticket to Ride designer Alan R. Moon, cite Acquire as a seminal work in the evoution of tabletop gaming. This post provides designer-centric coverage of the game. Other useful starting points for people interested in learning more about Acquire can be found at webnoir.com and gamereport.com, among many others.

Overview

Acquire is a resource management strategy game in which players compete to earn money through the establishment and merger of corporations. By founding, merging and investing in corporations, players earn cash and stock. The game is won by the player who generates the most personal wealth by the time all the game tiles are either used or rendered unplayable.

Players

Acquire is designed to be played by 2 to 6 players. Larger groups are possible, but each additional player in excess of the recommended six compromises the pacing and balance of the system, primarily due to the limited number of tile spaces on the game board. The game requires that one player play the role of the banker, managing stock and cash transactions. This player must complete additional tasks to fulfill her responsibilities as banker, but her experience of the game is otherwise identical to the other players. Play unfolds in a turn-based manner, with the order of play being determined by random draw and seating position. Perceived imbalances caused by the differential between the players’ initial turn ranks are mitigated by the chance involved in tile selection and the random seeding of the board that precedes commencement of play.

Acquire has a unique and engaging hybrid interaction pattern. This pattern can be broken down into two overlapping parts: multilateral competition for resources and cash, and uni-/bi-/multi-lateral cooperation to build, expand and merge corporations. The multilateral competition pattern is easy to identify: by tactically placing tiles and trading stocks, each player attempts to outplay the others in order to earn the most cash. The uni-/bi-/multi-lateral cooperation pattern is a little more subtle. This kind of interaction occurs dynamically at various times throughout the game as players find themselves involved in de facto cartels and trading blocs. For example, two players might work together to pump up the value of a corporation’s stock in anticipation of a merger if they both have a substantial amount of stock in that corporation. This dynamic generates a relationship between the board and the players that does not exist in more familiar multilateral competition tabletop games. Risk, for example, visually maps individual player success via the state of the board — a quick glance at a game-in-progress tells you all you need to know about who’s powerful and well-positioned and who’s not. Similarly, Monopoly ties houses and hotels to properties which are in turn tied to individual players. This player “ownership” of sections of the board does not exist in Acquire, which is ultimately as much about the players’ collective speculation on a dynamically co-created imaginary market as it is about the rise and fall of their individual fortunes.

A typical game of Acquire takes about 30-60 minutes, depending on the speed of the players and the player-controlled “banker.” Beyond the core game mechanics, players spend a lot of time storytelling about the rise and fall of the various corporations on the board — ooh, Sackson’s expanding like the Blob. I knew it! — or the fortunes and actions of the individual players — heads up, Jeff’s getting serious about Quantum. The game tends to freeze up a bit toward the end, excluding trailing players and leading to a somewhat anti-climactic finale. That said, the inherent dynamism and complexity of the system makes the potential for victory seem within reach for most players until the late mid-game.

Objective

Simply put, the objective of Acquire is to make money by founding, building and merging corporations, and selling stock. These ends are achieved through the strategic placement of tiles and the expenditure of cash from the players’ reserves. The game is typically won by the player who holds the majority of shares in the surviving “safe” corporations, although occasional victories can be had by players who buy and sell in high volume in the early game.

Procedures

Players of Acquire participate in two central procedures, Setup and Turns. Setup occurs at the outset of the game and seeds the board with a random selection of tiles, ensuring different starting conditions for every game. The core game play then takes place as players take their Turns.

Setup

Game setup consists of a resource randomization phase, an initial resource allocation, a random seeding phase, and a secondary resource allocation:

  • Resource randomization — In Acquire, players place numbered tiles onto their corresponding game board squares to expand and merge corporations. Each player has a “hand” of six tiles and plays one tile per turn. At the end of each turn, a new tile is drawn, replenishing the hand. To enforce randomness onto the allocation of these key resources, the first physical setup procedure in the game is to dump all 108 tiles onto the table and arrange them into a face-down cluster.
  • Resource allocation 1 — In the initial resource allocation phase, one player is chosen to be the banker. This player will manage the exchange of cash and stocks for the remainder of the game. The banker provides each player with $6,000 in game money, divided into four $1000, three $500 and five $100 bills. With this range of denominations, players can make initial stock purchases without needing to involve the banker in making change. Given our play testing experience, players rarely need to actively “break” their larger bills. Players who run out of $100 bills will usually pick up a few in change each turn, guaranteeing an easy flow cash transactions.
  • Random seeding — The random seeding phase of the setup is one of the most crucial moments in the game, as it determines the initial conditions of the stock market into which the players will be investing. The game board consists of a 12 x 9 grid of squares identified horizontally by number and vertically by letter (e.g. the square in the upper left corner is marked 1a, while the square in the lower right corner is marked 12i). After receiving their cash resources, each player randomly draws a tile from the face-down cluster and places it on the corresponding square on the game board. This procedure elegantly serves two purposes. First, it settles the question of turn order, as the player who draws the “lowest” tile (i.e. the one closest to 1a) goes first. Second, it “seeds” the board with a random selection of tiles. The result of this seeding is reminiscent of Conway’s Game of Life: complex, unpredictable patterns emerge through the combination of these initial tile placements with the other procedures called for by Acquire’s simple rule set. The result is a dynamic game board landscape that evolves to a different end-state with each replaying.
  • Resource allocation 2 — Setup concludes with the players each gathering six tiles from the face-down cluster. These tiles comprise the players’ “hands,” and are kept secret. While the designers have given the players options when it comes to the secrecy of other resources — the stock cards, for example, can be left open to public view without seriously damaging the game — it is important to note that they have set firm guidelines for the tiles. If players were to know which tiles one another had, the game’s strategic complexity would multiply beyond reasonable bounds as players would be forced to consider both the strategic placement of their own tiles and those of their opponents. Such computations would seriously compromise the game’s capacity to enable intergenerational/intercompetency play experiences.

Turns

A player turn involves four steps: placing a tile on the game board, processing the consequences of the placed tile, buying stocks and drawing a new tile from the face-down cluster:

  • Placing tiles — Players select one of their six secretly-held tiles to place on the board. To make this selection, players need to evaluate the consequences of placing a given tile onto its corresponding square. Tiles placed adjacent to other tiles, for example, will create, expand or merge a corporation. In the early game, the ratio of the number of empty squares on the board (depending on the number of players, this varies between 102 and 106) to the six tiles in each player’s hand is 17- or 18-to-1, meaning that the range of available moves might not contain a placement that is adjacent to another tile. This means that some players will find themselves unable to place a tile that will create, expand or merge a corporation. However, as play proceeds and the game board fills up, the ratio of squares-to-tiles decreases, ramping up the frequency of corporate foundings, expansions and mergers. Finally, the number of tiles in each players’ hand exceeds the number of playable squares on the game board. The game ends shortly after this state is reached.
  • Processing consequences — After placing a tile onto the game board, players must make the appropriate adjustments to both their own resources and to shared game tokens. For example, suppose a player places a tile next to an “unincorporated” tile, thereby creating a corporation (so long as fewer than 7 corporations are on the board). In this case, the player must first select a corporation token from the remaining tokens contained in the banker’s box, then place that token on top of one of the tiles in the newly-formed corporation. Finally, the player will collect a single stock card for the corporation that they founded. These resource and token manipulations take place almost every turn during the mid-game, when most moves will create, expand or merge a corporation.
  • Buying stocks — Players must decide which new stocks (if any) they will purchase by analyzing the projected fortunes of corporations (as represented by the tiles and tokens on the game board) and investors (as represented by the “stock portfolios” and piles of money that sit in front of the players at the table). A common strategy in this regard is to identify smaller corporations likely to be consumed by “safe” corporations (corporations with more than 11 tiles), and then to buy stock in them. This stock can then be sold or exchanged (at a markup of 2 to 1) for stock in the larger corporation when a merger occurs. Players are slowed from achieving unshakably dominant majority shareholder positions by a rule that limits the purchase of stocks to a maximum of three per turn.
  • Drawing a new tile — Players replenish their hand at the end of their turn. As the game approaches its conclusion, some players will find that they have tiles in their hand that cannot be played due to the safe corporation rule. The safe corporation rule states that two corporations that have 11 or more tiles cannot merge, and no tile that would otherwise cause them to merge can be placed on the board. Players who have such tiles in their possession may trade them in for another randomly-picked tile at the end of their turn. This procedure ensures that players who are stymied by the arrangement of safe corporations on the game board can remain engaged and hopeful that they will receive a better tile on the exchange. Crucially, however, this exchange is limited to one tile per turn, which prevents players from quickly cycling through the available playable tiles during the endgame. This rule effectively injects another element of chance into the increasingly deterministic final stages of the game.

Rules

Acquire‘s compact rule set generates entertaining, social and multi-layered play experiences. It is a minimalist blend of Go and Monopoly. Unlike economic simulation games that generate complexity and nuance through the proliferation of objectives and constraints, Acquire creates rich interactions via a set of simple mechanics. The rule set generates lively multiplayer-Go-like board play through a few simple rules concerning the placement of tiles and the consequences thereof. It generates an active card-and-cash market by simply constraining how and when stocks may be bought. Most importantly, it links these two play activities — board play and card/cash game — so tightly that the one could not exist without the other. ((This essential interdependence of rules, boundaries and game resources does not preclude looseness or “give” in the system. The 1999 Hasbro rulebook, for example, leaves it up to the players to “decide as a group whether the money and stocks they acquire will be openly displayed.” Numerous modifications and editions discussed online suggest that the system can tolerate a lot of bend-and-tweak before it breaks. And yes, I just said, “bend-and-tweak.”))

Resources

Acquire has three key game resources: tiles, stocks and cash.

  • Tiles — Having playable, strategically-relevant tiles can make all the difference, especially in the early game. Unlike stocks and cash, a player’s collection of tiles is determined through random draws. As noted above, injections of randomness such as this help to offset the potentially deterministic outcomes generated by board play mechanics alone.
  • Stocks — Stocks accrue value as their issuing corporations expand. Corporations that grow beyond 11 tiles in size become “safe corporations,” meaning that they can not be consumed as the consequence of a merger (and that they cannot engage in a merger with another safe corporation). Players will attempt to corner the market in stocks for the most valuable safe corporations (i.e. not all stocks are made the same), while quickly flipping the lower-valued stocks of minor corporations through mergers and acquisitions. ((Obviously, the safe corporation rule also has key design implications when it comes to the evolution of the board play aspect of the game. I haven’t done the math on this, but I would guess that to allow two corporations of more than 11 tiles to merge would create a monopoly situation at around the same time turn-wise of the actual rule set’s mid-game. As the end-game draws near, this key constraint accelerates the pace at which the number of playable squares decrease, bottle-necking the players into an increasingly small array of possibilities with — at least for some — an increasingly large potential payoff.))
  • Cash — Cash is necessary evil — albeit a highly-appropriate one, given the subject-matter of Acquire. As a game resource, it tracks the results of the players’ stock market activities. Cash may not be traded among the players, and aside from the up-front money given to them during the setup of the game, the only way players can earn money is through buying and selling stocks, or earning bonuses. Extra cash bonuses are given to the majority and minority stockholders when a corporation goes defunct following a merger. Tracking and processing cash transactions and stock values sometimes threatens the quick pace of the game, but the designers have done their best to mitigate this problem by providing simple charts specifying the going rates for stocks, majority and minority bonuses, and so forth.

Boundaries

Acquire’s boundaries are pretty standard: play is constrained to the tabletop, with the board as the central focus. In so-called “open display” games, the players’ money and stocks are a second circle of interest. In all versions of the game, the players’ personalities and knowledge of one another — both of which have roots that often go well beyond the shallow temporal constraints of a 45-minute board-gaming session — are also circumscribed by the magic circle.

Outcome

Winning Acquire depends on a combination of strategy and luck. A good draw of tiles properly played will put any player into potential victory position. Nevertheless, sudden shifts in fortune can occur well into the late game, leading to upset victories and close seconds. This randomness is essential to the game’s design as it confounds the deterministic tendencies inherent in small-grid proximal-square set-making board games (or SGPSSMBGs™ for short).

1999 Hasbro Ruleset

Formal element breakdown schema: Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop.
Scans: thanks, E.

If you own the copyright to any of the materials presented in this post and want me to remove them from public view, please let me know via email and I will do so.

Making meaning with images: tools, resources and inspiration for visual communication

Image manipulation, found footage, guerrilla filmmaking, and video editing notes for my IML students.

Image Manipulation Tools

  • Adobe Photoshop The industry standard bitmap image editor. If you’re a student, your school might have an arrangement with Adobe that will entitle you to a copy. If not, well… you could try looking elsewhere. I’m just saying.
  • Paint.net (Windows) A good basic image editor that can do a lot and is completely free. “Paint.NET…features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. An active and growing online community provides friendly help, tutorials, and plugins.”
  • The Gimp Cross-platform open-source image editor. Almost as powerful as Photoshop, and 100 percent free (and legal). Slightly steeper learning curve than Paint.net.

Good Places to Find Images

Inspiration and Food For Thought

Miscellaneous

Technical Support

Online, Reading

Reading a novel is an intense experience. Even lowly grocery store thrillers are complex and multimodal textual-linguistic collaborations between authors, readers, and culture. That is, novels are awesome. Reading them is never going to be a thing of the past. This much, I believe, is obvious.

What’s less obvious is understanding how ubiquitous computing and social media affect the ways new readers interact with novels and other long-form texts. Does the shifting vernacular of online discourse degrade general literacy? Is the Web somehow to blame for shortening attention spans? Does social media threaten to eliminate common cultural touchstones by fragmenting readers into ultra-personalized affinity groups?

The debate is passionate and charged. Articulate advocates abound, from technologists who cite social justice and political engagement as urgent reasons for integrating new media literacies into school curricula, to traditionalists who argue that instantaneous access to information and the casual, fragmented and unfocused nature of online writing present mortal threats to book culture. There are rejoinders to every argument, and there isn’t anywhere near enough room in this space to begin to cover it all. Nevertheless, like a lot of arguments, much of what is interesting here has less to do with particular advocacy positions than it does with coming to an understanding as to the origin, meaning and trajectory of the debate itself.

Using Motoko Rich’s concise 2008 NYT article, Online, R U Really Reading? as a launching point, I would like to suggest that what’s really going on here is in fact less a matter of ideological dispute than a linguistic discord brought about by category confusion — a semantic landslide shaken into being by instabilities in the definitions of the words online and reading. Furthermore, I argue that as the dust settles, the definitions for these words will expand and overlap one another as they stretch to take into account the dynamism and reach of the erupting technoculture; as a result, the distinction between so-called “media literacy” and traditional capital-L Literacy will all but disappear.

Communications technology and culture produce and consume one another in a strange co-evolutionary symbiosis. Chicken-and-egg problems confront analysis at every turn. Did the Web create Web culture, or did Web culture create the Web? While these kinds of questions might have had more ready answers in the early days of the web, the relationship between tech development and online culture has become increasingly tangled and recursive. The era of pervasive social media is upon us, and this is changing the way we must think about online communications, shifting away from a purely instrumental static linked documents view to the new and radically-unfamiliar-to-print-culture Web 2.0 perspective of dynamically linked concepts and actors. Cyberspace turned out to be much broader and deeper than even its most prescient early advocates had predicted — broad, because the Web is more than just an information space to be navigated through, but is also (most crucially) a multipurpose, multi-faceted hyperspace of conversation, socialization and collaboration; and deep because the Web’s tangle of dendrites now extend well beyond computer screens and into our embodied existences via the mobile devices and other near-ubiquitous network portals that proliferate in our lives.

This deep intermixing of social activity and technology requires us to re-examine what we mean when we speak of being “online.” What does it mean to say I am “online” when I am effectively always online? Where is the border between the Real and the Virtual when one exists in both places at once? Much of my own research involves exploring ways that mobile and ubiquitous computing can add layers of story, interaction and play to physical environments. Thinking of network technology/network culture in this manner — as a pervasive, spatially- and temporally-distributed non-platform-specific layer instead of a constrained single-platform activity — effectively expands the definition of the word online to include a vast array of mediated communicative acts.

Such an expansion problematizes critiques of new media culture that seek to cast online activities as being somehow in opposition to, or competition with, older modes of learning, play and communication. Rich cites Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, as an example of this kind of us-versus-the-machine characterization. And while Carr certainly makes some valid points about all the bad, bad things the Internet can do, he largely comes off as a finger-wagging grump. Carr’s confession that he “now [finds] it difficult to read long books” is particularly telling. Why does the author feel so down on himself for discovering that he is more interested and engaged by online conversation than he is by books? Maybe the reality is that Mr. Carr is in fact more fully in the world than ever before and simply doesn’t have the time or motivation to read books the way he once did, choosing instead to expend his imaginative capital meticulously researching and crafting angry, hyperbolic attacks on Web 2.0.

Mr. Carr’s argument is typical of critics who cleave to restrictive definitions of what it means to read and be online. Dana Gioia of the National Endowment for the Arts repeats a popular sentiment when he writes “electronic media…provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” The basic argument here is that books engender crucial linear reading and thinking skills that simply are not called upon in ephemeral and fragmented online reading contexts. This, to me, is something of a tautology (e.g., wood-chopping skills can only be acquired with an axe in hand; but that doesn’t necessarily put the kindling pile in conflict with the Kindle). Assumptions in both directions seem unexamined: anyone who’s taken a decent undergraduate English course knows that novels aren’t actually linear; that they engage with the world around them; and that reading them depends on an active imaginative collaboration between the author and the reader. Similarly, reading online is, like everything else in our temporality, productive of fundamentally linear texts. Even the most random walk through the Web assembles ideas and data feeds into a linear sequence — chapter one, I click on this, I read that; chapter two, I write this, I click on that, I read this…

Despite these and other debates about the putative advantages and disadvantages of certain kinds of literacy, it’s pretty clear that the process of collapsing the boundaries between online and offline reading is well underway. Like Nicholas Carr, I too have experienced a decrease in the number of novels and long-form texts that I read, a decrease that has been inversely proportional to the amount and range of my online reading practices. One could take Mr. Carr’s bait and argue that, because of this change, I actually read much more widely, am exposed to an exponentially larger array of texts via recommendation engines and social networking applications, and that my ability to discover and discuss literature is much greater now than it ever was previously. But doing so would simply invite another salvo of replies — that I am an educated academic with critical skills that enable me to leverage technology better than “amateur” readers, that I am proselytizing for a set of practices that I have vested interest in justifying, or that the non-heirarchical setup of the Web puts Orwell’s 1984 on the same level as bttf4444’s Down With Big Brother!, a crossover fan fiction mixing Orwell’s original with characters and themes drawn from the Back to the Future series. I would, of course, disagree with all these contentions; the ball would bounce back into Carr’s court, and we’d continue ad infinitum.

Such PvP arguments typify much of public life in this country; I’d rather look for solutions and opportunities to be found in the notion that reading is an expanding category which now takes into account a multiplicity of practices. Conceived of in this light, literacy education becomes the site of overlap between many interrelated practices. Learning how to tell the difference between fact and speculation, good sources and suspect ones, poetry and drivel, bttf4444 and Orwell — and how to properly appreciate, contextualize and interact with them all — has always been the work of the active reader, and a part of this work has been to find ways to adapt to changes in the technological and social landscape. Dealing with the new layers of literacy demanded by network culture is just the latest stage in this ongoing evolution.