Gale-force breeze

The Electronic Word - Infor-Rich, Info-Poor
September 8, 1995

We have here two very different books which yet share a concern to make sense of the effects of computerisation. Trevor Haywood believes that it changes the way we live, while Richard Lanham is convinced that it changes the way that we think and even how we think about thinking, yet both start from the same premise that new technology is the primary cause of change. If you do not accept this starting point (and I do not) then you will disagree with what these authors have to say, but there is a lot to learn from them wherever you come from.

Haywood's book reads like a first-year introductory course offered by a no-nonsense metallurgist turned librarian turned information manager who reflects on the import of the information revolution. As such, complex social science and humanities issues are breezily tackled with the boldness of the foolhardy and, unfortunately, the uninformed. The book is breathtakingly ambitious and eclectic, moving from speculation on Chomskian linguistics to strictures on the failures of British education. It has chapters on the "information chain" (from personal memory to institutions such as libraries), "information moments" (where education takes centre stage), information disparities between nations and the dangers of information imperialism, and a review of aspects of the information industry's structure.

This may sound rather well in an introductory course, but as a book it lacks coherence and substance. It is also disappointingly unscholarly, its chief sources being newspapers and magazines, and one cannot but consider it rather odd that a book on the info-rich and info-poor should be so dependent on secondary and superficial sources for information. It is hard to credit commentary on concentration in the information industry, for example, which does not make reference to the work of Nic Garnham, or Peter Golding and Graham Murdock, or Herbert Schiller. Again, Haywood presents a lengthy discussion about television without consideration of an enormous body of knowledge. Relatedly, and though personally I like much of what Haywood says, the book is marred by its being a liberal leftist's engagement with information matters. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it is an intellectual flaw when one's own standpoint is not problematised and other viewpoints are not assessed. There is a marked absence of intellectual sensitivity, a capacity to reflect critically and knowledgeably on what one sees. For example, the author asserts that technology is the major and undisputed cause of change now. He says this in an "of course" manner, en passant. Another work might ponder whether it is more central than money, or nationalism, or war, or even democracy, liberty or love.

Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word is puffed as a rarity, a eulogy for the personal computer from an ageing humanities professor. This senior professor of English from UCLA not only likes his PC, but welcomes its consequences for the arts and the education process itself.

The book is composed of published articles and it suffers repetition because of this, but it is thought-provoking and innovative in ways which set it far apart from most technology impact studies. It is impressively learned and elegantly composed while also having fun flailing at "death of the book" moaners. Lanham has little time for those who deplore the refusal of their students to look beyond that which is required reading for assessment and their irreverence towards books which are subordinated to television, video games and the PC. Lanham should be read (or, if you are bold enough, accessed on the floppy disk version from his publisher) as an antidote to cultural pessimism.

His central tenet is that the PC radically changes the text, resulting in books losing their reverential status and being transformed into, well, whatever the audience might want. This is the world of multimedia, hypertext, simultaneously a reading, aural and visual experience. Here Henry V can never be the same again when one can change the font of the text and thereby make it queer, call up Sir Lawrence Olivier's movie rendition, contrast this with Kenneth Branagh's, select an extract and use hypertext facilities to compare and contrast critical analyses . . .

Billy Connolly tells of a teacher exhorting his rough Glaswegian pupils to "appreciate" as they were exposed to canonical art. I was in that class. Perhaps it is not so different when we academics insist that, by paying the closest attention to the words on the page, our students will somehow absorb higher qualities. No wonder they resist, say Lanham, when everywhere else in their environments students are into a sensual, interactive, participative and empowering digital world. Academe should, urges the Californian prof, "get real".

Our 60-something professor of creative writing is certainly happy to decry the defenders of traditional scholarship. But Lanham goes a lot further than his own discipline and even the humanities to argue that the PC, in combine with increased participation in higher education, announces a new pedagogy which undermines the authority of the established teacher and texts and empowers the active learner.

With Lanham this is not so new, as he advocates a resurrection of classical rhetoric as the basis of the modern curriculum. He is rather vague about what this amounts to, beyond appeals for it to be engaged, practical, cross-disciplinary, sceptical and negotiated by learners.

Nonetheless, Lanham is good at uncovering the rhetorical devices used by educational traditionalists even when they deny them. He argues that "Newtonian" education stresses the clarity and brevity of language, claiming that it should be looked through to see truth. He believes that the PC's manipulability dramatically exposes this as a rhetoric that denies its rhetoric, that we always look at rather than simply through. This being so, Lanham urges a new concept of the university, founded on uncovering rhetorics and then developing rhetorical skills in our students.

I am not persuaded, certainly not by an argument presented in the rhetoric of recurrent allusions to Plato, Socrates and Quintilian. But even we traditionalists will have to read Professor Lanham.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology at Oxford Brookes University

The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts

Author - Richard A. Lanham
ISBN - 0 26 46883 6, 0 226 46884 4 (floppy disk)
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £9.50
Pages - 88

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