Technology Literacy Narrative: Part 1

This post is my response to an assignment I gave the graduate students in my Digital Rhetoric class: Technology Literacy Narratives. My goal was to finish the assignment before giving it to them, as a test run of the prompt, but (surprise surprise) I got carried away and ran out of time halfway through. My goal is to post part II by mid-semester, when students will begin remediating their narratives as multimodal objects.  

It’s probably too much to say that the drive to explore the link between the written and the digital is in my blood, but it does seem to run in the family. My father credits his love affair with the classic text adventure Zork as having steered him towards his career in computer engineering. And despite being as different as two siblings could be while we were growing up, my brother and I have both found our way to careers focused on writing and the digital. (Ben, being both more practical-minded and more charismatic than I am, now works as Community Manager for Gamepedia.com, over at Curse Inc.) It seems, in some form or another, we’ve always been a Computers and Writing household.

I grew up surrounded by computers. My Dad had a Sun Microsystems computer in his office going back as far as I can remember, but despite their ubiquity I was never even remotely interested in learning how they were build or controlled. I followed in my father’s footstep, singular: I was captured by the idea of computer games. I say “idea of” because for years, the best “game” available involved releasing crudely animated roaches onto the desktop; the goal was to “crush” them as they scurried from one hiding spot to another. I was beyond terrible at this game. I lacked the motor control (and, let’s be honest, the patience) to figure out how to track and trap them. As a result, my father often came back to a desktop positively swarming with e-roaches. (Watching him squish them effortlessly and handily, far from frustrating me, made me admiring and hopeful. Maybe I too would someday become a carefree exterminator of computer bugs.)

The Sun was the only machine in the house I could actually use, albeit in limited capacity – but it was far from the only hardware in the house. My father was a hardware hobbyist of the old school, always building and tinkering and, above all, collecting. Dad’s “Computer Junk,” we called it: metal shelving units stacked with monitors, peripherals, half-empty towers.  It was all so interesting, so exotic, and it made me feel special – then, and more and more as years passed and computers took on more and more significance outside my basement – that I was close to all this, and that my Dad knew what all these gemlike, inscrutable items could do once brought together.

But I never wanted to do that myself. This feels lame to admit now, looking back. I wish I’d felt more of a draw for that – but that’s just not how technology spoke to me. I was more creative, intuitive, bookish; and in those early years, there wasn’t a clear path for connecting my hobbies with my dad’s hardware.

My dad’s hobby kept us at the (relative) cutting edge of personal computing developments, but my dad was always very deliberate about teaching us to be critical and effective users of these systems, even if we didn’t understand the hardware behind them. I was 12 when my dad taught me the proper way to compose a support request – be specific, remember what you did right before the error, provide information on any error messages received, etc etc. He presented it as no different than learning proper phone manners, or how to open a bank account – just a skill you need to function efficiently in the world.

My father called these lessons “computer literacy.” Being computer literate didn’t mean knowing everything about computers (which at this point it was plain I never would), but knowing enough about their basic workings to troubleshoot basic issues yourself and, failing that, to know how to request help correctly. These lessons made a deep impression; I write every support request as if my dad is looking over my shoulder. This was arguably my first rhetorical lesson about writing with/about technology: consider your audience and purpose, and write so that those knowledgeable people have what they need to fix your shit. Decades later, this has evolved into a cornerstone of my teaching.

The cornerstone of my research, by contrast, came from something I discovered on my own: participatory media (or what passed for it in 2001). My first experience using a computer to interact with digital strangers was through a website called the Brunching Shuttlecocks. I don’t remember exactly how I found the site originally, but I remember loving it immediately. Very much a precursor to the web of today, Shuttlecocks featured a range of different recurring posts – analyses of movie reviews posted by a far-right religious website, simple comic animations starring cartoon versions of the site’s creators, comical “Ratings” of random stuff…boilerplate stuff now, but back then it felt novel – and, in those early days of the net, intimate. When things were published, there was the sense that they were *for* the regular readers like me – and the small scale of the digital world back then meant I could know those other regulars too. And thus I joined my first digital community.

This was a major moment in my technology literacy story, as it turns out. For one, it’s where I first engaged with the type of activity I’d go on to study for my PhD – that voluntary writing between putative strangers that’s driven only by shared interest and digital friendship. It’s where I found out about Kingdom of Loathing, a delightful stick-figure MMORPG that I played on and off for nearly 15 years and which also heavily influenced my eventual research (more on KoL later). It’s where I saw firsthand the power of digital interactions to create genuine bonds between people. I was young – well under 18 when I first joined – and that youth plus my natural shyness in new environments kept me at the margins. But even so, I was arguably more active with the Brunchmas than I have been in any participatory community since. I’ve never reflected on this before, but I really was so lucky with them, to stumble into such a good first experience. The value they placed on their relationships with each other was obvious; even though I never attended the yearly meet-ups or became personally close with anyone beyond the bounds of the forum and its games, it was obvious to be that a digital beginning had no bearing on a friendship’s potential. The Brunching Forum was also the first of many signs that participatory internet writing could be as rich (and even “correct”) as any other kind. Now, I have a name for what I was seeing in action: discourse expectations. Back then, I just thought everyone online wrote with mechanically perfect wit.

For a long time after this, my technology literacy developed mostly through gaming. We never had a system (anathema to my PCMasterRace father) but video games were a staple family activity in my house. Having cut his teeth playing Zork collaboratively with my mother in college, my Dad viewed all adventure games as potential family pursuits. And so my best gaming memories are not solo, as you might expect, but collective. My dad, my brother and I huddled around the PC in the upstairs office, making our way through the Great Stygian Abyss (Ultima Underworld) or the planes of the blackrock gem (Ultima Underworld 2) – this is when I first saw the power of games to make you learn them. The complexities of the skill trees, the casting systems, inventory management: these things were impossibly complicated to my 9-year-old self, but as we passed through the game’s world they snapped into place. When Ultima Underworld 2 rolled around, I entered already knowing those tropes, understanding what the game expected of me and how to work within that system.

And then, in 1993, there was Return to Zork. This game, more than any other, was special to my family. Zork was the game that brought my father towards his chosen field, and the first he played with my mother; unwrapping this new chapter was the highlight of our Christmas. In an unprecedented move, the adults set up the PC on the dining room table. All of us – kids, mom, dad, and my uncle – marveled at the then-stunning motion capture graphics and agonized over the puzzles. It’s a great game, even without the nostalgia factor, and one that still occupies a special place in our hearts. It’s right there in the inscription on the locket my parents gave me at my PhD graduation: “Here’s to us.”

To be continued…

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