Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Computers for Smarties

Speaking of "books that make you dumb," I've recently looked at two books about digital rhetoric that make reference to the "For Dummies" trade paperbacks. One is literally a "For Dummies" book, Second Life for Dummies, written by Virtualpolitik pals Sarah Robbins and Mark Bell. Robbins is known for her work teaching communication skills in virtual worlds, and as a result the book has a strong rhetorical orientation with chapter titles like "Jumping into the Conversation: Express Yourself" and "Creating Your Second Life Persona." It also contains material about teaching and learning in Second Life, although they downplay their professional work as researchers in the text. I see Robbins and Bell on the conference circuit, and the last time we caught up on their globe-trotting promotional efforts, Bell was giving a presentation to the Kinsey Institute about sexual practices in SL. (He was debating how much to say about the experience of being cruised by a giant animated taco.) Robbins has been emphasizing the tricky boundary shifting that can challenge any pedagogy with a slogan from her talks, "Don't come to class naked."

Although it has been out since 2001, Laura Gurak's Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness also acknowledges the "For Dummies" genre. As Gurak writes, "Unlike many of the 'how-to' books and 'dummies' guides' on the market, this book is not a technical listing of what to do and not to do." Unfortunately, a lot of the book seems dated now, which I know is a hazard faced by any new media title. It's messages about gender, "techno-rage," and hoaxes could also be said to play into many of the implicit assumptions key to the current reactionary political mood that focuses on cybersafety rather than building public information infrastructures. There's also a kind of normative moralism that runs through the book, even though I've made arguments in favor of dissimulation, exhibitionism, and transgression in Internet environments. The issue really is "cyberliteracies" not "cyberliteracy," I would argue. Finally, even though Gurak is an expert on the clipper chip debate and the role of technical constraints in online communication, the book is relatively light on the forms of procedural rhetoric being written about right now by Ian Bogost and others.

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