Currents: An E-Journal
The Cultures of Computing.  Ed. Susan Leigh Star.  Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995. 
Currents in Electronic Literacy  Spring 2000(3), 

  1. The Cultures of Computing examines the relationship between computing practices and culture-making in a collection of essays which for the most part are linked by social constructivist tenets: that learning is best achieved in a collaborative setting involving multiple voices and viewpoints, that interpretation of texts is best addressed from a contextual vantage point, and that computer-based sub-cultures such as newsgroups and technologies such as hypertext encourage such collaborative learning and reflect contextualized understanding of texts and information. Most of the monograph’s essays, in other words, are tailored towards a scholarly audience, one with a general interest in cultural studies and in particular the role computers play in creating, refining, and redefining cultures.  Editor Susan Leigh Star introduces the essays by suggesting they all embrace “social criticism” and a belief in a “philosophically-informed debate about the nature of mind and cognition” and “resist rationalistic, simplistic or hype-driven descriptions of what computers will do for cultures” (8-9). The like-minded reader will likely find several of these essays interesting.  But for the reader who resists predictable conclusions from research, or resists theory without application, some articles will likely encourage rapid page-turning.
  2. For instance, Nancy K. Baym’s treatment of usenet subcultures in “From practice to culture on Usenet” provides a statistically sound but dry I-could-have-guessed-that account of the user features of one soap opera newsgroup, of which she is a member.  Baym finds that the newsgroup’s language “invokes a multitude of significances,” that the group has “conventionalized and meaningful ways of marking messages,” and that members “create situation-relevant identities” and “sustain an affective tone” (50); she concludes that “[a]ll of these process on r.a.t.s. [the acronym for the newsgroup] are functional” (50).  The same,  of course, could be said for many if not most types of communication.
  3. Fortunately, other essays are both engaging and insightful.  Paul N. Edwards’ “Cyberpunks in cyberspace”  argues that “political history provides a critical counterpoint to cyberpunk’s overenthusiastic embrace of cyberspace” (69).  Edwards claims that the historical conceptualization of the computer as gigantic brain illustrates how computers can become “culture metaphors,” engaging the imagination with a type of science fiction while at the same time informing the real-world use of computers in national war machines.  The author maps the critical concepts of a ‘closed world’ and Northrop Frye’s ‘green world’ onto twentieth century political and ideological conflicts, positing, for example, that for Americans the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain became political symbols of  the closed world.  Moreover, Edwards suggests, “computers played an important role in the developing discourse of the closed world,” signifying fascist oversight, a desire for control, and “technical-rational solutions to complex problems” (73).  Edwards concludes on a cautionary note, warning that cyberspace’s origins in “centralized, sanitized power and control” could in the future pose a risk to our “green world and our bodily links to it” (84).
  4. In what could be viewed as a counterpoint to Edwards’ essay, Robert Alun Jones and Rand J. Spiro’s theory-based article, “Contextualization, cognitive flexibility and hypertext: the convergence of interpretive theory, cognitive psychology, and advance information technologies,” claims that hypertext’s mode of discourse offers potentially beneficial parallels to postmodernistic modes of interpretation.  Jones and Shapiro laud the shift from “text to context” (147) and urge rejection of linear thinking.  Drawing upon Stanley Fish, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, the authors contend that  the nature of hypertext, essentially one of contexts within contexts, mirrors postmodernistic acts of interpretation: “That is, there is an important relationship between the hypertext medium and the cognitive message it both promotes and requires for appropriate use” (152).  Insightful as this comparison is, the essay concludes with an overly dogmatic privileging of postmodernist views, concluding that those with a tendency towards essentialism and anticontextualism will be unable to benefit from the hypertext medium.
  5. Other articles include Margaret Riel’s “Cross-classroom collaboration in global Learning Circles” which offers a practical computer-based model for improving K-12 cultural education.  Like Andrea R. Gooden’s Computers in the Classroom (reviewed here), Riel calls for an educational paradigm shift in which “students use propositional knowledge to construct shared meaning or solve real world problems” (219), and like John Slatin’s article, “The Distance in Distance Learning,” Riel views “distance” as an educational virtue.   Riel's "Learning Circles" model, in which geographically separated classrooms engage in similar “curriculum themes,” asks students from different cultures and global locations working in the same “circle” to devise projects for each other.  This allows students to communicate electronically on both a personal and academic level, and encourages cross-classroom collaboration throughout a given theme’s duration.  The project culminates in a publication which encompasses the findings of all of the classes in a given circle.  The benefits of Learning Circles, according to Riel, include students’ increased interest in their own cultures, necessitated by queries from their virtual classmates, and students’ heightened attention to the quality of their own writing, based on the visualization of an audience of their peers.  At the same time, the technology minimizes the tendency to form stereotypes because students lack of “visual markers” (238).  Given these benefits, readers might be disappointed to find little explanation of the specific role(s) of computers in Learning Circles.
  6. Karen Ruhleder’s essay on the changing nature of classical scholarship--“‘Pulling down’ books vs. ‘pulling up’ files”--claims that the rise of textual databanks could mean that in some fields of academia “‘collaboration’ [won’t] necessarily involve two living individuals,” but rather a computer and academician (190). Ruhleder argues the culture of the classicist has shifted as a result of text databanks, which provide greater potential for one person to examine a greater number of texts while at the same time encouraging superficial familiarity with texts, perhaps suggesting the future growth of research will be towards statistic-based research rather than projects which cannot be “easily pursued using computer-based tools.” She also predicts the “demise of the intense and individualistic relationship between scholar and text” and a new cultural relationship between scholar and programmer" (194).
  7. The Cultures of Computing also includes articles on the “visual culture of engineers,” “a comparison of mathematical work in school and professional design practices,” and “historical perspectives on work, computerization, and women” which addresses gender bias in occupation-specific computer programs. In general, then, Cultures of Computing offers a diverse look at computers and the cultures with which they are associated.
  8. Roger Rouland
    The University of Texas at Austin
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