Playing Into Video Games and the Composing Process

My first experience playing a video game started out as being fun, then exploratory, then pitiable. I honestly do not know how old I was when I played Crash Bandicoot (1996) for the  Sony Playstation, but I do remember rage quitting and crying with frustration whenever I troll_8.jpgcould not get passed the second level; I used to have nightmares about the main character Crash dying.  Looking back, I guess my constantly trying to get passed the second level and the subsequent rage quit indicated how
immersed I was in playing the game.

I found Colby and Colby’s (2008) article and Alberti (2008) article interesting because of the recurring topic of play, which I think is the core purpose of a video game. These authors write about play and its application to reading and writing pedagogy.  Alberti seems to lean toward play and reading, but Colby and Colby’s article attracted me the most because of their theories on play and writing pedagogy in particular.

Colby and Colby suggest that “gameplay becomes an important part of the invention process” (310). When I was playing video games, I had to go through lots of discovery, trial, and error in order to build a gameplay learning experience.  In relation to the authors’ aforementioned claim about what gameplay entailed, it occurred to me that part of the invention process when beginning to write something is the playing involved.  That is, students have to formulate, adjust, and go through trial and error with their ideas.  During the process of invention, students are discovering things—what works, what does not, and what needs to be done in order to progress.  While I did not have to go through an invention process, in my conquest to get through the first level of Crash Bandicoot, I had discovered many things: square holes in the ground meant that I had to jump over them to proceed otherwise I would die, boxes held “wumpa fruit” that I could collect and if I collected 100 I could earn an extra life, enemies would be in my way, and I had to time my spins or jump on them in order to kill them or else I would be killed.  While I could have just read through the instructional booklet (I did not do so before playing), now I do not regret it because going in blind allowed me to discover, explore, and fully immerse myself in the game (until I started rage quitting.)  I feel that I had a richer learning experience this way.  I can imagine that “going in blind” in a video game is similar to the state student writers go through when first given an assignment prompt because going in blind forces students to go through  the processes of invention and discovery—they need to play—in order to proceed.  Playing then, in the world video games and composition, is a tool players and students use as a way into the task before them.

Alberti claims that there is a “game of reading and writing” (p.268) and within the game of reading and writing, there has to be some sort of play involved.  Colby and Colby illustrate what it would be like to incorporate WoW in a complex curriculum, and play is definitely involved; in fact, if students who have never played WoW went into this class, they would have to go through an extensive version of my discovery process due to WoW’s immersive world and gameplay.  I cannot really see WoW as the most ideal video game because the complexity of the game’s world almost requires students to be familiar with the game and everything that it entails before the first day of class otherwise precious time will be spent trying to learn the game’s basics.  As future teachers of composition who value diverse content, I wonder, though, what other video games or video game genres besides the MMPORPG could also bring about student (or even teacher) learning experiences that Alberti and Colby and Colby discuss and envision?  Since we would be dealing with different video games, what and how might these other video games shape reading and writing pedagogies in the classroom?

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Social Media: The Renaissance Self-Expression and Community.. or is it?

I have spent the last few hours pondering what Micheal Wesch would say about the changes in spaces like Youtube and other social media since he made his video on Web 2.0 and his anthropological study of Youtube. Once upon a time, (though really it was not that long ago) vlogs and other personal videos were absolutely the predominant videos and content type on Youtube. Looking all the way back at 2006 we see much of what was being discussed by Wesch in simple user generated videos with just a few thousand views sitting on the front page.

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Credit: Graphitas

I am sure if we used The Way Back Machine then we would see many response videos, even to these front page entries. If we take a peek at the front page of Youtube today, the field has completely changed. Every front page is tailor made for the person who is consuming the media, especially if you have any viewing history or an account linked to your Youtube habits.

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As you can see, the trending videos look like a Hollywood catalog; they are almost completely comprised of massive company sponsored channels or the titanic channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers making professional content for our consumption. Now, I am not saying that this is necessarily bad, since millions of hours of entertainment have arisen from the ability of an individual to monetize their videos on Youtube, but the community of videos that was so exciting to Welsh ten years ago is dying if it is not completely dead already. It seems that a significant amount of social media is moving away from being a way of interconnectivity toward being a way to create or popularize a brand. Even my own Facebook feed has become more of a space to see updates from news and entertainment sites than just seeing what a friend is up to on any given day, resulting from giving a page or website a “Like.” Is there a new social media that has replaced this phenomenon? Maybe Vines? Snapchat? My experience with these new medias are limited so I have no real idea if those kinds of apps are filling this void.

Moving to a slightly different sphere, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” Amber Buck examines what she calls, (finally…at the end of the article) “a rather extreme case of social network site use.” Throughout this study, her subject, Ronnie, is shown to be trying to make a “brand” much like the celebrities that we see on Twitter, Facebook, and other networking websites. I feel that this discussion is a bit disingenuous as a result because it is not indicative of most students practices on a social networking site. While we all create an online identity, I do not believe that most people are developing as complex rhetorical skills that Ronnie is displaying and Buck is discussing nor do I think most people are trying to generate fans and fame from their social media exploration. To me this kind of study just screams outlier case.

(As a side note her abstract mentions that the literacy practices we explore include navigating user agreements, which means that she thinks that many young adults read them.)

 

Now this is not to discount that rhetorical  and genre learning is going on and we as teachers cannot take advantage of that, but social media and how people, especially youth, interact with that media evolves faster than we can build data and studies on how to incorporate it into pedagogy and the classroom. We have read many papers examining Myspace, but that website is now a wasteland with most people’s profiles sitting derelict, an interesting photograph of our past social media lives. It makes me wonder how much of that study is still relevant as things so rapidly change. I am extremely interested in what the next few years hold and how social media and literacies will continue to evolve.

Will we see another website emerge to replace Facebook? Or has the evolution of social media begun to settle and slow down? If students are as active as Ronnie and I am just ignorant of this, then how might we best bring this to the forefront in the classroom?

I think I have rambled like a terrible cynic for long enough today. So I shall do what I always will and leave you all with an OC remix of the day. This is a remix by FoxyPanda of the famous “Aquatic Ambiance” Theme from Donkey Kong Country. Cheers!

“Don’t Bite the Noobs!”

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Love them or hate them, online media (blogs, wikis, forums, etc.) are new aspects of composition classrooms that are quickly becoming part of the norm. With Tryon’s “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First Year Composition,” Hunter’s “Erasing “Property Lines,”” and Benson and Reyman’s “Learning to Write Publicly,” one of the main connecting ideas between the three articles are the difficulties instructors experience in creating an authentic environment for students to write genuinely and for students to feel like that their writing is making some sort of difference on the world (with hopes of connecting with at least one other person). Luckily, the four authors mention and present different solutions and statistical proof on how online media can assist in conquering these dilemmas.  

 

ned-stark-blog.jpgWith this group of reading, I instantly started comparing the differences between blogs and wiki pages. Generally, blogs are written by one author and have content that is open for criticism by outsiders. According to Tryon, students become better writers because of this instant publication of their writing. Through this instant publication, students are capable of escaping the perception that they are “passive consumers” of writing and instead are becoming “active participants” of a specific writing community (Tryon 128). In the case of Tryon’s experience with his “Writing to the Moment” course, he was lucky to have readers outside of the classroom comment on his students’ blogs. As intimidating as that may be, this aspect of the course blogs made it so much more impactful for Tyron’s students because it showed an establishment of his students becoming part of that community. Rather than having the criticism in the comment section bring down their writing, students were able to strengthen their writing by incorporating the criticism into their next writing or using it to further establish their stances present in the blog; “blogging’s ephemerality, its focus on the everyday, and its no-holds-barred argumentative style” (128).

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Wiki pages are generally content manifested together through a community of different authors who are able to add their own content and are also be able to edit other community members’ writing. Despite the strong community aspect to wiki pages, these authors also have a “lack of ownership attached to mistakes” (Hunter 48). Unlike blogs, wiki pages are more of a group effort where authors can directly communicate with each other on their writing and how to fix it.

 

Although blogs and wiki pages are separate online genres, they share a commonality by emphasizing on some sort of community development and individual growth through that community. In a way, blogs and wiki pages fit Benson and Reyman’s use of Walker’s take on network literacy, “understanding a kind of writing that is social, collaborative process rather than an act of an individual in solitary” (9).

 

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I’ve always felt tension when incorporating new media in the writing classroom –both as a student and an instructor, especially with blogs. Having gone through my undergraduate career, I can say that the strictly writing courses were tedious. Don’t get me wrong… I learned a lot, but they felt so repetitive. The saying, “Don’t Bite the Noobs!” in Hunter’s article stuck out to me because I think it’s something that we all can incorporate into our classrooms. Writing itself is such a hard thing. Even as a graduate student, I still find myself stumbling with words when typing the simplest of things: Facebook statuses, Instagram posts, and even text messages. Knowing that a community is open to new individuals definitely eases the tension and is something that can be beneficial for students.           

    

 

Technowriting Evolved: Resistance is futile

I had already begun considering the process of biological evolution, even before I got to the last article in the series, Alex Reid’s “The Evolution of Writing” from The Two Virtuals. If we consider that humans have invented new technologies long before the computer, and that these technologies include the written word, as outlined by Walter Ong and Dennis Baron, then we must go back even further to the invention of the spoken word itself, the thing that eventually made our societies so complex that we needed writing to order the things we said and thought.  Go back further, and you see anthropologists refer to the human revolution in the wheel and other mechanical objects; earlier, stone tool-making forward to iron and so forth.  Even further, I thought, we should consider the evolution of communication itself.  But why stop there? Is not every evolution, every step that brought us to now, an advance in technology that changes our abilities to get around in our environments?

Now, as I write this, I have only read the opening of Reid’s text, and I shall read it in its entirety after I have finished this post.  This requires some discipline on my part, because clearly it leads where I was supposed to go, and like all literature majors, I want to know the ending.  But today I want to try something different: I want to venture down this path blindfolded and see if I end up in a similar place.  Maybe it’s the anthropology major in me, finally exercising its desires after having been suppressed inside an English teacher for so long.

I enjoyed the supreme irony in Plato’s dialogue of Socrates and Phaedrus which prizes the oral and denigrates the written, even as Plato sees fit to commit that argument to writing.  I feel that most people still don’t see that, even now, in this moment, the “virtual world” is still very much organized around alphabetic technology: Writing.  Plato wrote his argument in the form of a dialogue between two people, who weren’t actually there discussing it; in so doing, he borrowed an oral form to get the idea into print.

Science-fiction has seen the future, and it is the cyborg: A human-machine hybrid, usually evil and unconcerned with the preservation of “unplugged” humanoids.  Like the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation, assimilation is the only evolution, “resistance is futile.” But what remains today is that our heroes resist against all odds and prevail, like the stories over the campfire millennia before us. Small bands of native resistance pop up, like that established by the singular Borg named Hugh who develops a soft spot for humans after spending time with them away from the Borg Collective, or the underground city appropriately named Zion from The Matrix films.  I ask now: Who’s borrowing from what here?

It was tough for Plato to wrap his brain around what was happening to him in the moment he wrote that what is spoken is superior to print.  I think Henry David Thoreau’s rejection of the telegraph, at the same time as he perfected pencil manufacture (another tool) in order to keep himself writing at Walden Pond, is a similar sort of technology-related “brain fart.” I have a tough time trying to imagine a world where my son and his progeny will be human-computer cyborgs of anything but an evil kind.  This doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, and probably (I hope) in ways that are not evil, but only different.  Although I’m sure my son would love to grow up to be Darth Vader or General Grievous, cyborgs of that other science-fiction juggernaut we geeks love so well.

Evolution, even technological evolution, takes time.  After I graduated from Cal in 1996 with the aforementioned degree in English and Anthropology, I tried my hand at learning to code HTML.  It was not pretty, and I couldn’t do it.  It it felt, for me, like my failure to master calculus as a freshman and subsequently giving up on being a vet, a doctor, or a chimpanzee researcher: I simply could not order my world that way.  I just wanted to communicate, and maybe ride the Web 1.0 to early retirement.  But now, fifteen years later, I can use what grew out of that desire to communicate and use the tools others built for me to use, and explore in this blog, and in my own blog, and in the blog I created for my students to use, and teach them to establish and use their own and those of their classmates.  And ultimately, I get to do what I was always pretty good at in the first place: Write.  But while I did have to wait, I didn’t have to wait very long, comparatively; I established my very first blog in 2001.  On an evolutionary timescale, that’s too small a period to measure. But on my personal timescale, that’s the period when I went from being unable to keep plants alive to having a son of my own.  I must have evolved! Or grown up.

I think, like many things in their nascent forms, there will be system crashes and temper tantrums as the bugs and kinks get worked out.  There will be people railing against the digital revolution until something replaces it as the Next Big Thing.  But historically, most of these things have never turned out to be as evil as The Borg.  And if resistance is futile, then embracing technology and being on the forefront of its responsible use, especially in the writing classroom, becomes our next responsibility.

Reflection on the course title

Lately I’ve been thinking about how appropriate the course title of ENG 708 is: Teaching Writing in a Digital Age. The emphasis is still on writing and its central importance to critical thinking. I don’t think we need to be taking on the teaching of aspects of all new media, nor do we need to be concerned about ways new media may be supplanting written language, nor is it that we must now teach new media composition instead of English composition. But written language and the service it performs as vehicle for critical thinking certainly must be examined in its application to new media (as we are doing). In reference to Ong, just as language adapted to technological evolution like the printing press and the computer screen, writing will, I believe, always play the central part in how understanding is gained and knowledge is conveyed. This is because language is the primary medium for thought and composed language is still the optimal manifestation of that medium. We still need to teach English composition, but the medium of language will be applied to blogs or games or digital videos, as well as the printed page. Composed language will remain the underpinning, if not the central core, of the thought involved.

Certain species of flora and fauna, it is understood, have been with us for eons. The same may be true in the future for topic sentences and 5-paragraph essays, even as ever more highly evolved forms of media make their way into being.

Giving Students Time and Space: Asynchronous Conversations

Warnock’s points about how effective asynchronous posting can be, as a tool for enabling student conversations, match up very closely with my experiences of using iLearn forums for classes I’ve taught here at SFSU.  For privacy reasons I can’t quote those fourms, but I will try to describe one such thread in an effort to illustrate what Warnock was talking about.

For one of the discussion threads, my students were reading about genetic screening for various traits (things like sports aptitude and propensity for disease) and had just finished watching the movie Gattaca.  So in this thread, I wanted them to continue and expand upon the discussion we’d been having in class, and I hoped that the forum would allow some of the students who didn’t normally talk much in class to participate more fully.

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Should we be cautious of a rhetorician’s ability to map best practices in Comp pedagogy onto digital terrain?

As Robert points out, Scott Warnock’s objective for writing Teaching Writing Online: How & Why is to encourage composition teachers to adapt thoughtfully conceived, model writing pedagogies for use in online environments as a means of exerting influence over how distance and e-learning technologies are adopted and used within institutional settings. While Warnock certainly makes a strong case for all the reasons why teaching composition in digital environments reinforces and perhaps even epitomizes the primary learning goals of writing instruction, I found the book’s perspective on the need to develop a particular (and ultimately quite constrained) teaching persona somewhat at odds with the argument that it is possible to translate one’s face-to-face teaching methods for online use—primarily because of the perceived need for members of the online community (both teachers and students) to begin consciously auto-censoring their identities and personas because of their growing awareness of the fact that all exchanges and interactions are now officially “on the record”. I think this raises interesting questions about human development and the ability to change, “revise”, or “re-see” oneself over time. As educators, are we convinced that having the record of one’s conduct in a formal educational setting is beneficial? repressive/stifling? a blend of both? Writing to learn models would suggest that making our students’ learning visible and thus available for reflection is a good thing, however, that model is predicated on the use of informal or low stakes writing, where students express themselves and explore their thoughts and ideas without reservation or the need to perform a particular level of understanding or engagement. I’m curious what others think about this.

I’m also curious about the drawbacks of making writing the (near) exclusive mode of discourse within writing classes. Although the goal is to teach writing (among other things, like critical thinking and reading), I don’t know that I agree that that goal is necessarily best accomplished through more writing-intensive forms of instruction. Although there would seem to be a logical, one-to-one correlation, what about the fact that so much of the way our students learn to negotiate and construct meaning comes not only from their writing to or for one another (or for us for that matter), but from the informal (and more free-form) hashing out of ideas through discussion and debate? What happens to our students’ willingness to take intellectual risks (off the record, during class discussion where bodily language, physical proximity, facial expressions, and tone combine to make navigating tension or emotionally-charged discussions of complex and/or controversial material more manageable or even editable in a way that a follow up utterance can be used to revise or even help erase past comments from immediate memory)? Given the need to exercise certain constraints in order to maintain adequate control over the online learning environment (in order to prevent it from becoming too informal, at least according to Warnock’s recommendations), are we potentially at risk of over formalizing–or even to a certain degree inadvertently standardizing–our students’ responses?

Perhaps my preference for discussing ideas prior to engaging in written forms of exploration and/or reflection can be chalked up to a difference in learning style, but I do find that I’m a bit disturbed by Warnock’s emphasis on rhetorical performance—on the record, in writing—as opposed to the messiness of thinking/learning that we are supposedly encouraging our first-year students to embrace. I’m interested in kicking off a more in-depth discussion around this topic.

These kids today–an opportunity for transformation of consciousness

In his 2009 Wired article on the “New Literacy” Clive Thomson warns us that “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame.” Indeed, this perennial lament was echoed on January 18th of this year as AP educational writer Eric Gorski wrote that “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” The blame for this performance, however, is not lain at the feet of technology. One reason the article cites is that students simply aren’t required to write or read enough.

According to a January 7th The New York Times article, William H. Fitzhugh has published a print journal of selected high school essays for over two decades. He makes the claim that “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Further, he says that “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” According to a survey cited by Mr. Fitzhugh, 95 percent of the teachers surveyed “said assigning long research papers was important, but 8 out of 10 said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.” Though Mr. Fitzhugh was forced take his journal online this year, while discontinuing the print version, he apparently saw no increased opportunity in this, beyond saving money, such as reaching a wider networked and involved audience.

In his article, Thompson highlights the work of Andrea Lundsford, who in her Stanford Study of Writing found that “Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom…” With web media students have found purpose and audience for their writing that classrooms have not been able to provide. However, as Will Richardson says in his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, “as is often the case, education has been slow to adapt to these new tools and potentials.”

In his article, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter J. Ong writes that “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” As well as making interior transformations, networked media is forging transformations of social conceptions of how students learn and build knowledge. If we accept that writing elevates consciousness by holding a mirror to thought process, we can also understand that this close examination of one’s thoughts is often met with anxiety and resistance. But just as the printing press provided a greatly expanded audience for those with a purpose for communicating, students now inhabit a world where increased sense of purpose and audience bring greater enjoyment to writing. And there is an immediacy that brings language back to the realm of conversation and community. This presents great opportunity for teachers to expand upon.

In order to learn, we must think, and we don’t know what we think until we try to express it. We end up having to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This is essentially the aim of educational writing. It is also what transpires in the networked community among its members. In group discussions, blogs, and wikis, others can comment on, or even edit our writing. A little collaborative learning might even take some of the load off the amount of written response that traditionally fell solely to the teacher, and who knows, perhaps a few more “pages” of writing could get assigned.

Greased Pig: Nailing our role as FYC instructors

Just when I think I have a grasp on what the role of the composition instructor is supposed to be, a new comment, article, blog posting, book chapter acts as a beckoning finger, a mental hyperlink meant to lure me from the comfort and safety of my own home page of understanding.

Richardson suggests that it is our job to teach safety and accountability to our students as we shepherd them through making educational use of participatory media. Sure, why not? If our main focus as FYC instructors is on not only writing, but also on improving the overall literacy of our students then making students aware of the effects of their own participation as well as the participation of others is absolutely a part of that.  In some ways we are just being asked to modify or expand upon pre-existing lessons on topics such as plagiarism, audience, voice, etc.

Richardson oversimplifies the divide between the techno-savviness of educators and their students — certainly how much divide can there really be between a 23 year old and the 18 year old high school seniors she is teaching?  And there do exist seven year olds who have never set a finger on an iPod or visited a website.  We must be careful to avoid ageist generalizations on both ends and keep our focus on which literacies are most relevant and how we can obtain or maintain our own relevance as educators.

But truly, does reporting from a camera phone or to a blog equate news that is anymore “true” or educational than the news that used to come through the phone tree of the community busy body? Even in the days before computers people who were socially literate knew that information from a known gossip could not necessarily be counted on, but should be questioned and examined in light of the possible motives behind passing on the information. I do buy, at some level that amateur reporting is in many ways more truthful, and less tainted with motive, than conventional reporting but I’m not exactly sure that the critical muscle to examine such things is so vastly different than those which we have been using all along. Teaching the type of examination necessary to determine what sources are and are not reliable really falls under the critical thinking umbrella (which we are asked to touch on in our teaching as well).

If we are meant to teach FYC students to be socially literate critical thinkers as well as readers, writers, editors, collaborators, publishers, reporters, viewers, designers, activists and composers, then that drastically changes our identity as a discipline and the things we need to know in order to be effective composition instructors. For me the challenge is exciting, and I am always open to reinterpreting my role. My partner teaches seventh grade Spanish and, several years ago was having behavior issues with many of her students. At that time I asked her, “What is the most important thing you can teach them in your class?” It wasn’t much having to do with learning Spanish – they could pick that back up freshman year of high school and be right back on track – it was more having to do with being a respectful class member, figuring out what the boundaries were in a junior high environment, etc. Once she let go of the fantasy that she alone was going to imbue them with the music of the Spanish language, she was able to relax and understand that her class, much like FYC is about exposure, not mastery.

Tecnologically Speaking

I was first introduced to the idea that writing is technology as an undergraduate studying linguistics. It was hard to wrap my brain around the concept at first – I guess I had always taken reading and writing for granted. People read and write, right? My world has always been filled with various forms of the written word. For that matter, my world has always been full of technology – technology that I have, for the most part, taken for granted. The only time I really took notice of technology was when it wasn’t available to me – my neighborhood was one of the last in the area to be wired for cable television, and my parents waited so long to buy a VCR I thought my head would explode. To think about writing as a technology is to consider this common practice from an entirely different angle.

As Dennis Baron reminds us, the earliest instances of writing were not records of conversation but of business transactions. Writing then, it seems, is a technology invented by those with property as a means of memorializing and protecting their interests. While literacy has become much more common since those first scratchings, it remains a tool of the privileged. The language of the dominant group is always the most valuable literacy in our increasingly globalized community. Those with the means to access the technology of literacy have greater access to power and control in their lives and their communities. Writing, like other technologies, is a commodity.

Those with access to writing technologies by default gain access to broader, more complex ways of thinking, as Reid tells us. Though Plato denounces the written word for it’s inability to answer interrogation, it is the written word itself which allows us to so thoroughly interrogate discourse. As Reid says,”it is our ability to store and process information in spaces outside our body that allows us to engage in the complex thoughts on which consciousness is founded” (p.25). Had Plato not immortalized his thoughts in writing, we would be unable today to consider his views. Had the Canterbury Tales remained as stories transmitted only by speech, scholars would not have been able to build entire careers around their analysis.

I find myself uncertain of what it is I am getting at here. There is a tension present in this notion of writing as technology. Language expressed orally seems to have as its primary purpose interpersonal communication. People within the same community likely speak the same language – language unites them and allows them to share. Spoken language is available to almost everyone. The ability to write is harder won. As Baron points out, the first technologies of writing were costly, available only to a few. In our increasingly digital world the same holds true. Written language can leave behind those without access to the current technology, diminishing their power and control. Writing can be a great joy, a means of opening the mind to wonderful new worlds. It can also be the barrier to those worlds and to crucial aspects of our world. Writing can help you or hinder you, depending on your access to technology.