The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary # 2

The Shrinking World. Literacy and Culture in the Digital Age

A Commentary on Bias and Technology

By David Berljawsky

Submitted to Prof. Miller

Nov 15, 2009

Modern technology has made the world a more streamlined and connected place. However there are many benefits and shortcomings that have arisen. One only needs to be aware of the way that hypertext has been developed to understand the inherent problem of digital technologies. It was created with a particular culture in mind, and represents the creator’s technological ideals and values. Despite this it is used by many different cultures around the world “…Freire’s ideas undermine the local commons by transforming indigenous ways of knowing, making them more susceptible to economic and technological globalization and thereby contributing to the loss of traditional ecological knowledge systems… (Bowers, from Lange, p.355).” Despite the aforementioned misgivings, there are many positives found about the current state of hypertext and the modern age. This paper will examine how the current hypertext revolution affected different cultures and the pros and cons of digital literacy in cultural terms.

If one looks at hypertext as a commodity, then it has been nothing but a smashing success. It has for all intents and purposes transformed our world. There is now an increase in long distance communication, global boundaries have been shrunk and news and media are more available than ever before. As with nearly every commodity there are people who benefit from it more than others do.  IT technologies not only have a bias, but often have technological limitations that handicap other cultures. “The cost of the new technologies, the geographic isolation of many communities, low levels of computer literacy and lack of awareness of how to technologies might serve indigenous goals and interest have led to this low adoption of the technology (Dyson, Hendriks and Grant, p.10).”

There is no question that modern internet technologies benefit the dominant western culture. Other cultures need to tread carefully when using this technology.  Its usage can initially be seen as exciting and as having the ability to advance one culture and knowledge.  “Writing is often regarded at first as an instrument of secret and magic power (Ong, p.92).”  Remember, writing and literacy is a technology.

How does this affect other non-dominant cultures? In terms of culture and identity much can be lost. If internet technologies are used to share values, transmit beliefs and other culturally specific ideals this can negatively affect the authenticity of the culture and their literary technologies. They are using a medium that was not designed for them, and is not representative of their values, education system and beliefs.   “Similarity, it is the nature of the computer that determines which patters of thinking, communication, or experiencing will be reinforced as well as which patterns will be marginalized or represented as nonexistent (Bowers, et al, p.186).”

If we continue down this path much will be lost. Other forms of literacy, that are not of the western dominant style will be changed to a hybrid of their original style and of modern western based technology. Perhaps they will be lost completely.  Computers and internet technologies are not around to promote multicultural values. Ultimately they are a commodity and need to be viewed as such.  “The computer industry has multibillion dollar reasons for maintaining the myth that computers are a culturally neutral technology. (Bowers et al, p.184).”

In terms of literacy there are many benefits to living in this day and age. One major benefit of modern technology is the ability to educate using the internet and computer. There are certainly positives to using this technology to promote literacy. “Certainly, digital literacy carries with it the potential for a far wider, more global access to knowledge… (Dobson and Willinsky, p.1).”

Students are able to communicate with other cultures and learn from each other like never before. This increased multicultural knowledge can be enhanced through the internet.  There are also countless software applications that allow students to increase their literacy and typing ability. It is imperative that educators realize that they should not simply rely on these technologies to teach because of the dependence that it can create. They also need to educate about the technologies inherent bias and shortcomings to allow students to be able to make their own decisions.  “Increasingly, students come to online learning with preconceptions gathered from both formal and informal experience in virtual environments. They exercise their mastery of communication norms and tools, some of which are not appropriate to an educational online context (Anderson, p.48).”

There is always the danger with certain cultures that they will use modern technologies to promote their causes and improve literacy. “Individuals and whole culture do mold techniques and devices to their own purposes, but the material properties of such techniques and devices also impose limitations on their possible uses (Bolter, p.20).” Often, when a culture or group becomes too attached to a technology, they lose something else. We may develop an increase in digital literacy, but we will likely lose a form of non-digital literacy in return. This is a form of progress, and can be seen as either positive or as a negative as long as one is aware of it happening. Postman discussed this in great detail in Technopoly, “If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did. Our understanding of what is real is different (Postman, p.13).”

In conclusion I believe that it is important for educators to understand that literacy is evolving. We no longer can take for granted that all students are going to have learned literacy in the older, old fashioned way. It is important to understand that the internet is also not the most culturally advanced tool out there. However with the proper education and understanding of its biases it can advance the quality of life, and education for many cultures. Educators need to be aware of this because without the proper knowledge of how to manage and harness this technology it can hurt the longevity and authenticity of a culture “…but as its use expands and intensifies, so does the ‘overseeing gaze’ of encapsulation policies and transnational corporations (Prins, p.7).”


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dobson, T, & Willinsky, J. (2009).  Digital Literacy. (OlsonD., TorranceN., Ed.). Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. [Book Chapter]

Lange, Elizabeth A. (2007). Transformative Learning: The Trojan Horse of Globalization? Concordia University College of Alberta. Alberta, Canada.

Prins, H. E. L. (2002). Visual Media and the Primitivist Perplex: Colonial Fantasies, Indigenous Imagination, and Advocacy in North America. In Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin (Eds.), Berkeley Media Worlds: Anthropology on a New Terrain, (pp.58- 74). University of California Press.

Anderson, T. (2008). Toward a theory of online learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.) Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Chapter 2 (pp. 45-74).  Available online at:

Bowers, et al. (2000) Native People and the Challenge of Computers: Reservation Schools, Individualism, and Consumerism in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 182-199.

Dyson, L. Hendriks, M & Grant, S. (2007) Information Technology and Indigenous People. United States of America, Information Science Publishing.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 8:51 am }

I am in agreement with you and I wondered if you had any suggestions as to how we could “manage and harness this technology”.

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