New tends to freak humans out. Anytime something new comes along with the potential to redefine or redesign, we tend to get excited and upset in equal measure.
“New” is a messy, imprecise term when it comes to the broad fields of computers and composition instruction. That they overlap is clear, but how they interact and where they matter to each other is less so. There’s a recurrent theme in this week’s reading: optimism. From different snapshots in time, these writers attempt to parse the new effects of technology on writing. These observations are either directly optimistic themselves, or they engage the optimism of others.
Vannevar Bush, writing when we were only beginning to guess the possible outcomes of the nascent technology age, describes his conceptualization of home computing equipment designed to aid the storage and organization of information and research. Bush is optimistic that beleaguered researchers will finally have digital assistance in maintaining their ever-growing “mountain(s) of research” (2) and this would enable better writing. Nearly 45 years later Richard Lanham again focuses in on the benefits of technology on research, but now looks at it from the point of view of students. He writes that the literature and composition students of 1989 are on the verge of a quantum leap in the accessibility of texts, morphing from unidirectional talking to readers to a dialogue of authors and readers sharing both up and down the stream of information, creating nonpermanent living texts in the process. Both authors are dazzled by the concept of greater access and engagement with information.
Only two years after Lanham, however, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe conclude this exuberance about what computers may offer writers doesn’t necessarily translate into better teaching: “… technology can fail us. We need to recognize that … computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61). Despite this criticism, Hawisher and Selfe still see potential for the technology to enable students of composition to retake authority over their own writing.
These discussions are still taking place in the academy, and with similar fervor of optimism and skepticism, depending on who you ask. In the past few years alone, we’ve heard enthusiasm over social writing spaces: writing is writing, and we should be thrilled that students are willingly occupying themselves with so much writing, no matter the venue. We’ve also heard frustration over these services and worry that these places undermine student understanding of audience and voice.
We’re always going to be reacting – optimistically or negatively – to what’s new in computing because the very nature of our technological existence ensures there will constantly be something new. The reality is that by the time we see enough to conclude that computers (again – the broadest sense of the term applies) have affected writing, that effect is so entrenched as to be irreversible, and the next big agent of change is already up and coming.