City of charlatans, poets, thieves and philosophers

27th June 1997 at 01:00
DIGITAL LITERACY. By Paul Glister. John Wiley, Pounds 15.99.

Any book with a dust-jacket proclaiming that "Somewhere within the flood of digital on-line information there is a creative universe just for you", deserves to be approached with caution. Fortunately, Paul Gilster is a more thoughtful writer than the blurb would want one to expect.

The "creative universe" is the Internet and what the author sets out to do is present us with a methodology for this new culture. Digital literacy thus becomes a way of assessing and codifying information which we receive on-line in largely unmediated form.

It can be a dangerous, often untruthful, environment and Paul Gilster suggests a suite of analytical tools - "core competencies" - that will better equip the reader for the virtual life. Strategies are presented to help separate truth from fiction, the wheat from the chaff. The Internet is likened to a city in the process of being built that, like any other city, has its share of "charlatans and thieves as well as poets, engineers and philosophers".

One of the author's main concerns, certainly shared by many teachers and parents, is that the Net is a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation.

Without proper critical skills, children in particular are likely to take World Wide Web pages at face value. Of the key skills that Paul Glister enumerates, the most important is content evaluation, to which he devotes a complete chapter.

The checks and balances in our broadcasting system mean that television companies have a responsibility to present balanced and accurate programmes, and this they largely do. The statement "It's on the box so it must be true" doesn't apply to the Internet, where propagandist material defending everything from "the Oklahoma City bombing to the Holocaust on finely tuned Web pages" is easily found.

Despite these well-argued and valid misgivings, the overall tone of the book is positive and lively. By placing the Internet in the context of communications technology - from papyrus to codices to printing press and, finally, to hypertext - the author establishes the World-Wide Web as the most recent stage in a continuum of expression stretching back to cave painting and beyond. He also marvels at the resources it makes available.

"Knowledge Assembly", the penultimate chapter, explores ways in which information can be garnered from on-line sources such as audio or video archives, and suggests that networked information has special qualities. It is searchable, it can be customised, its hypertext nature ensures a wide range of views and its database - incorporating, as it does, newspapers, magazines, radio and television - is extremely broad. The truth is out there, we just need to know how to search for it.

This is not a book for those who want to navigate the Internet faster or be first at the coolest Web site. What it does offer, however, is - incalculably more important - skills with which to make sense of an environment that is constantly changing and where the boundaries between content and presentation are becoming ever more smudged.

As Paul Glister writes in the final chapter, "Technology driven by capitalism fires the Internet's engines, and will account for faster development in the next five years than networking has seen in its history. The only way to adapt to its demands is to use the tools of digital literacy to examine content with a mind honed on rationality and scepticism."

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