Sunday, February 5, 2012

At the Bottom of Pandora's Box (Revised)

Using technology and new media resources as a means of reading and writing has been largely demonized as, at best, a poor use of our time and detrimental to our skill as writers and thinkers and, at worse, an indication of the ultimate degradation of our society. I am writing this essay in response to those who would criticize the use of new media resources. I would argue that rather than defining the “internet age” as either the saving grace of literacy or its downfall, that the use of these technologies is indicative of an entirely new form of literacy all together: one that promotes writing with a combination of many different stylistic approaches. I am assuming that the critics to which I write this essay are mostly teachers or intellectuals of some sort and I will appeal to their “academia” with a well written and organized essay as well as a plea, that as champions of learning, they should allow me to grow and expand in my writing abilities through the exploration of new mediums. 

As human beings, we have this fear of losing ourselves. A fear that someday our best intentions are going to backfire, that our greatest inventions will be more than we can handle, or that our wildest dreams will become our most terrible nightmares.  In the eyes of some, the Internet has become the pariah of literacy, a Pandora’s box, if you will. They fear this stunning new technology will dazzle us with the riches of social interaction and globalized communication or tempt us with its wealth of knowledge and opportunity only to betray us when we dare to reach for the gifts it offers. They fear that in using the Internet we have released upon ourselves the terrible evils of illiteracy.  These fears, though grounded in logic, forget that there was some good to come out of Pandora’s box. There remains a hope that those of us who are growing up in the internet age will find some way to put our new toys to work for the betterment of ourselves and our society.
Those who fear the Internet believe that the social networking-obsessed, blog-crazed, entertainment-based, and gossip-centric ways of the Internet have made us shallow and narcissistic. They are certain that we are more concerned with posting a picture of the latte we just drank than we are with learning about what is happening in the world around us. Those that fear the Internet would say that all these things are simply a desperate cry for attention, that it is evidence of the narcissism we have succumbed to by opening the “Pandora’s box” that is the Internet. They see these efforts as the efforts of people searching for their five minutes of fame, people searching for the validation of what they believe and their outlook on the world, (however true or false those ideas may be). They believe the Internet is a place where people desperately vie for the approval of their peers, to fit in, to feel somehow important. To them, the Internet is a place to fulfill shameful vices or act out behind the convenient mask of anonymity and, in many ways, they are correct. People are using the Internet for these purposes, but, once again, those who fear the Internet have failed to look beyond these failings to see the redemptive value that lies underneath the mess. The hope that I see rising out of these Internet habits is one where people of all ages can drive their own success. Instead of simply using the Internet as an outlet for our vain thoughts and opinions, some people are using it as a way to express their talents and extend their connections in order to further the success of their personal endeavors and dreams. While I agree that Facebook is definitely an enabler of our self-centered tendencies, I would also argue that these sites create a sort of connection to one another that we have never had before. Users of the Internet have become accustomed to the idea that what we do and say and read and write on the Internet is globalized and we are not intimidated by that fact. As a result, when we use the Internet we are consistently thinking of our audience and the impact of what we will say. We are moved and inspired by this audience and it shows through the way we think of writing and its purpose. As Andrea Lundsford writes in her article, Our Semi-literate Youth? Not So Fast, “[Students] were increasingly aware of those to whom they were writing and adjusted their writing styles to suit the occasion and the audience. [They also] wanted their writing to count for something; as they said to us over and over, good writing to them was performative, the kind of writing that ‘made something happen in the world.’ Finally, they increasingly saw writing as collaborative, social, and participatory rather than solitary”(1). People are recognizing and taking advantage of this audience. Instead of working through official channels people are doing things on their own. Kids are becoming world famous musicians through You-Tube (i.e. Justin Beiber, regardless of what people may or may not think of his musical talent, people cannot argue that he got his start on the Internet) People are making movies and videos (i.e. Jenna Marbles and Red v. Blue), writing articles and blogs( i.e. Tavi Williams, fashion blogger), that are gaining them attention that they would not have been given by traditionalists. The Internet is getting people connected and getting people talking. Instead of viewing literate activities as largely optional, they are motivated to take part in literacy because, with such an audience, it can finally count for something bigger. Yes, the Internet has its drawbacks, but what doesn’t? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Our professors should celebrate this new interest and approach to writing and beyond that, professors should note the disparity between the attitudes students have for their own writing as compared to their classwork. As Lundsford mentions in her article, Performing Writing, Performing Literacy, “Self-conscious and self-confident, students see themselves as savvy, risk-taking writers when they reflect on their self-sponsored writing activities As Alissa puts it: ‘I am more courageous in my out-of-class writing’”(231). This sense of audience and purpose has drawn something out of students that traditional classrooms have rarely done: it has given them the courage to take risks when they write, to try new things and reach beyond their comfort zones. Isn’t this supposed to be the environment that professors are creating in the classroom? Instead “a lot of that learning (perhaps most of it) is taking place outside of class, in the literate activities (musical compositions, videos, photo collages, digital stories, comics, documentaries) young people are pursuing on their own.”(Our Semi-literate Youth? Not So Fast). The traditional academic approach to writing is out of touch with today’s youth. As Clive Thompson notes in his article, The New LiteracyThe Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn't serve any purpose other than to get them a grade”(1). If the only purpose to their writing is to get the grade and they’ve already acquired the skills to do so, what need do students have to grow beyond what they already know? Shouldn’t professors endeavor to prevent this kind of stagnation in their students’ literacy? I myself have been frustrated by the stagnation I see in my own writing. I find myself looking at a paper (that I got an A on) in disappointment because I know I could do so much better. More often than not I find my classwork stifling and unfulfilling. When I look at what’s popular on the Internet(and even the novels in print) I know that what I’m writing now won’t make the cut and if that’s the case, why on earth is it making the cut in class? I’d rather get a D on a paper and actually learn something than get an A for not trying. I would enjoy writing in class much more and take more care to write well if I knew my words would reach beyond the desk of my professor. If writers, like myself, who are not finding an outlet for their writing abilities in the classroom, are finding it on the Internet, why should they be criticized?
Academic writing will always be important but it is not the only type of writing that exists. Styles like journalism, poetry, feature writing, play writing, script writing and creative writing have all been accepted as legitimate writing styles that are beneficial to society. I would argue that the writing we see on the Internet is no different. It is a new form of literacy that focuses on forging connections between people in ways that have never been seen before: connections that span time and place, cultures and ethnicities, age and class. As Andrew Sullivan writes in his article, Why I Blog, “For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal.” Though Sullivan is writing specifically about blogs, I believe his point applies to the Internet as a whole. When one’s audience has the potential of becoming so vast, the importance of one’s purpose grows in proportion. Instead of looking only at the problems the Internet brings I ask my peers and my professors to be open-minded and realize the potential the Internet has for learning and teaching. I charge professors to help students take full advantage of the Internet’s benefits and to teach them how to use it appropriately.
Once Pandora opened her box, she realized the terrors that lay there, but what was done could not be undone and all that remained was the hope that people could help one another overcome the evils that had been released into the world and take full advantage of the good that remained. Before we start reveling in a desire for the old days without digital media, lets face it, unlike the world in which the evils of Pandora’s box were unleashed on, the literary world that existed before the Internet was far from perfect. As Thompson points out, “Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again”(1). Without getting too carried away about the woes of the Internet we should realize that, while the Internet has brought with it many bad habits in literacy, it has also introduced some good. By and far what we see the most of is just change: as pure and as simple as that. We should realize that despite the changes that we see around us we are still people, people with desires and hopes and dreams who will use the tools available to us in order to reach them. We are people who, no matter what happens, will adapt to the changing times and take hold of the hope that we can make something good out of the box that we have opened. Those who cannot, or will not, adapt will simply be left behind.

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