Creative Styles and 'Networking Literacy'

Tracy Seneca
LIS 296A/Fall 1993


The original inspiration for this paper was to clarify some of the difficulties I encounter -and have seen many others encounter - with using computers. Using the work of cognitive psychologists, I would like to clarify what it is about computers that confounds me. Having read Vera John-Steiner's Notebooks of the Mind, which concerns different styles of thought, I had concluded that computers often demand a style of thought that does not come naturally to me. I was also struck by Chris Carlsson's reference to the transition from oral to literate culture, and the implication that we are facing the same sort of transition as we rely more on computers and networked information. When I began the reading for this paper, I was already of the opinion that the movement towards computer-mediated information represents a new kind of literacy, and that this 'new literacy' will be as exclusive as the move from oral to written knowledge. That is, reading requires the ability to conform to a certain style of thought, and many intelligent people, people with dyslexia for instance, cannot conform to this style of thought. Access to networked information demands skills and styles of thought that include and surpass those needed to read, and I have no doubt that there are 'computer dyslexics' who will be excluded from online resources. This is a worrisome prospect as computer use may become as much a requirement of society, and as false an indication of intelligence as literacy is now. I must admit, however, that my reading left me less convinced of the point I was endeavoring to make. Wile I feel that it is an extremely valid concern, and is, in fact, already happening to some degree, I have to concede that computers are incredibly flexible tools, and can potentially change to fit certain creative styles.

With these perspectives in mind, I want to examine networked information, its content, organization and what it requires of the user. Before I can address this, however, I will need to look at the computer-as-machine, the most basic aspect of networked information, because this is my first roadblock to making use of the network. Because this paper began as an attempt to clarify my experience with learning to use computers, much of what I will refer to will by incidents in my life that give me insight about my creative style.


Cognitive Psychology is a field which I am just now becoming acquainted with. Until recently, I had thought of this cinched as simply intelligence assessment, involving I.Q. tests and other dubious and not very interesting undertakings. There are, however, some very interesting and appealing ideas coming out of cognitive psychology. My first contact with this cinched was through Vera John-Steiner's Notebooks of the Mind; Explorations of Thinking. The book is drawn from the writing of and interviews with people in a wide variety of fields, and focuses on the question "How do you think?". She divides styles of thought into visual, verbal, emotional, and scientific. By illustrating the processes that people undergo in their creative thoughts, John-Steiner demonstrates that while we value the idea of rational and logical thought processes, few of us actually think that way. Even when the result is a scientific discovery (to which we commonly attribute rational thought), the means of getting there may have begun as a vague feeling, or an image. While I appreciated many of John-Steiner's points, on second reading I found her distinction too arbitrary, and I felt that she 'led the witness', as it were, in her interviews. She writes:

In order to facilitate their introspection - because it is not easy to describe one's process of thought - I frequently asked these scientists to reflect on the personal observations of others in their field. I presented them with a passage from Einstein..." [1]

A more helpful perspective is offered by Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind, which outlines his theory of Multiple Intelligences. Written in response to the overriding conception of intelligence as a solitary and measurable trait, Gardner argues that "Human beings have evolved to exhibit several intelligences and not to draw variously on one intelligence" [2]

The different intelligences that Gardner describes are:

Each of these intelligences has its "domains", areas where a certain sort of intelligence is required. Gardner defends his use of the term "intelligence" to distinguish these seven categories:

Many individuals, though happy to recognize the existence of different abilities and faculties, balk at the use of the work 'intelligence'. 'Talents are fine', they say, 'but intelligence should be reserved for more general kinds of capacities'. One can, of course define words in any way one likes. In delineating a narrow definition of intelligence, however, one usually devalues those capacities that are not within that definition's purview: thus, dancers or chess player may be talented, but they are not smart. In my view, it is fine to call music, or spacial ability a talent, so long as one calls language or logic a talent as well. But I balk at the unwarranted assumption that certain human abilities can be arbitrarily singled out as qualifying as intelligence while others cannot. [3]

I find Gardner's approach valuable here, as he addresses the issue of the marginalization of certain people on the basis of a cultural view of intelligence. I also appreciate that he includes "Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence", a concept that will figure in my examination of computers. One shortcoming with Frames of Mind, however, is that it does not really address how people apply their intelligences outside the "domain" of that intelligence. How, for instance, might a person use kinesthetic intelligence for solving an essentially logical problem? One possible answer was provided a marathon bicyclist I once met who discussed every topic at hand in terms of bike racing. There was no field of endeavor that the metaphor of racing did not clarify for him.

A more far reaching example of applying an intelligence outside its usual domain is provided by James Clark Maxwell's description of Michael Faraday's work in electronics:

Before I began the study of electricity, I resolved to read no mathematics on the subject till I had first read through Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity. I was aware that there was supposed to be a difference between Faraday's way of conceiving phenomena and that of the mathematician so that neither he nor they were satisfied with each other's language. I had also the conviction that the discrepancy did not arise from either party being wrong...As I proceeded with the study of Faraday, I perceived that his method of conceiving the phenomena was also a mathematical one, though not exhibited in the conventional form of symbols. I also found that these methods were capable of being expressed in the ordinary mathematical forms, and thus compared with those of the professed mathematicians...For instance, Faraday, in his mind's eye, saw lines of force traversing all space where the mathematicians saw centres of force attracting at a distance. [4]

The question of how people apply a variety of intelligences to certain domains is crucial understanding the demands of literacy as a necessary trait for all members of a society, whether they favor linguistic intelligence or not. I would suggest that many readers mediate their readings with other intelligences. Some people will form rich imagery of a novel as they read, while others take the plot in without any particular picture associated with it.

Another related school of Cognitive Psychology is "Distributed Processing" which suggests that

Not all of the knowledge required for precise behavior is in the head. It can be distributed partly in the head, partly in the world. [5]

One's intelligence inheres as much in the artifacts and individuals that surround one as in one's own skull. My intelligence does not stop at my skin; rather, it encompasses my tools, my notational memory, and my network of associates. [6]


Another helpful source for clarifying my questions about computers was Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. In this book, Norman looks at the mental traits and visual cues that allow people employ to make use of everyday objects. Among these elements are "mapping", "feedback" and "mental models". Norman defines mapping as the "relation between two things [such as] the control's movements and their results in the world." [7] Feedback is simply sending the user information about what has been done. Mental models are the user's understanding of how the device works, and can be crucial to the ability to use the item in question.

A good conceptual model allows us to predict the effects of out actions. Without a good model we operate by rote, blindly; we do operation as we were told to do them; we can't fully appreciate why, what effects to expect, or what to do if things go wrong. [8]

Mental models are often constructed from fragmentary evidence, with but a poor understanding os what is happening, and with a kind of naive psychology that postulates causes, mechanisms, and relationships where there are none. [9]

Norman applies these criteria to a variety of objects, doors, cars, slide projectors and computers. Aside from arguing that designers often do not take users' needs for mapping, feedback and mental models into account, he also suggest that bad design causes "taught helplessness". People fault themselves when they can't naturally or easily use a device, and become less inclined to investigate further. Norman refers to the distributed theory of cognition by pointing out that much of what we 'know', we place in the world around us. The uses of the function keys on my word processor linger briefly in my short term memory when I type. The rest of the time, they live on the guide taped to my keyboard.

Norman argues that

Mental life is not neat and orderly. It does not proceed smoothly and gracefully in neat, logical form. Instead, it hops, skips and jumps its way from idea to idea, typing together things that have no business being together. Human thought is not like logic. It is fundamentally different in kind and spirit. [10]


The first difficulty I encounter with the computer is its physical limitations. Ergonomics has been an issue of growing concern as computers become the primary tool of the workplace. Much has been said about repetitive motion syndrome, tendinitis and backache. It is a common sight to find reminders to stretch, stand up, and change positions tacked up next to people's workstations. For me, the ergonomic problem extends beyond possible wrist pain. The problem posed by the computer is one that has also been posed by the structure of formal schooling; I cannot think in a fixed, seated position. While I never had the intensity of activity that hyperactive children have, I prefer to be fairly constantly in motion. While teachers and principals did eventually convince me to learn to sit still, I still find that I don't really reach the crux of a discussion until I have left the classroom and am walking home. It is not mere reflection that brings forth new ideas; it is walking. Edward Gorey's character from The Unstrung Harp suffers the same affliction:

Mr. Earbrass belongs to the straying, rather than the sedentary type of author. He is never to be found at his desk unless actually writing down a sentence. Before this happens, he broods over it indefinitely while picking up and putting down again small, loose objects; walking diagonally across rooms, staring out windows and so forth. [11]

This is not an uncommon trait. One of my coworkers would appear to require her left knee to work through an idea. She may be perfectly composed at the table in meetings, but her knee is in rapid motion. Rodin's thinker is crouched in something of a ball, not seated with his gaze straight forward. Vera John-Steiner writes:

Young children engage their bodies in the search for information and knowledge, a process which is so effectively described by Piaget. And many individuals who are not affected by the western methods of schooling do rely on their limbs and eyes, as well as their minds in solving problems. But this method of learning has been discouraged in industrialized countries. Here, education consists of seated learning. [12]

Now one can always step away from the desk when writing; what concerns me here is an increasing expectation or implication that thinking is a purely cerebral activity. This notion was already a cultural assumption, hence my trouble with schooling, and hence the design bias which is part of computers.

William Buxton addresses this issue in his article "There's More to Interaction than Meets the Eye":

Imagine a time far into the future, when all knowledge about our civilization has been lost. Imagine further, that in the course of planting a garden, a fully stocked computer store from the 1980s was enearthed, and that all of the equipment and software was in working order. Now, based on this find, consider what a physical anthropologist might conclude about the physiology of the humans of our era? My best guess is that we would be pictured as having a well-developed eye, a long right arm, a small left arm, uniform length fingers and a low-fi hear. - Today's systems have severe shortcomings when it comes to matching the physical characteristics of their operators. [13]

Buxton suggests providing a wider array of control mechanisms (such as joysticks, mice, etc..), rearranging existing controls to distribute right and left hand operations, and creating foot pedals.

Bob Stein referred to this problem when demonstrating his late night reading methods with the powerbook, but this is not enough. For more interactive applications, one could not type comfortably lying in bed. This will get to be a more general problem as the computer terminal takes on more functions. Having seen the new Apple model which has a cable hookup, I was left with some doubts. Where in the house would I put this? Watching t.v. and working at a terminal are two totally separate physical attitudes, one being the height of repose, the other being rather stiff. The computer acquires clutter - books, post-it-notes, disks and coffee cups, usually creating a narrow clear path from the chair to the screen. The t.v. has to be set up to accommodate more than one person's view. The information superhighway is going to require some ergonomic thought, and might just produce some noteworthy changes in the approach to hardware.

The interface is another 'bottom line' aspect of the computer, one which is showing incredible improvement and even more promise in the future. With graphics systems that allow for increasing user influence and control, people who think visually can find the cues they need to navigate their computer systems. With increased control, users may be able to create their own cues or icons that actually mean something to them. UNIX or DOS commands are hard for people to remember because they are only arbitrarily associated with what the person wants to accomplish - they don't mean anything. This is difficult to avoid when computers have a limited number of keys to control and incredible number of possible functions. The inability of a large number of people to remember the details of the computer's operation, or to interpret the manual, leads to a phenomenon I've witnessed in every office I've worked in, an unspoken war between the staff and 'the computer guy'. The systems support people seem to have no difficulty at all remembering that you have to press "offline-menu-clear" under circumstance X. It is such a simple act that people do indeed feel foolish for not having known it.

Icons are an improvement, but can still be arbitrary. The more creative input the user has, the more the interface becomes, as Norman would put it, 'knowledge in the world.' Norman points out that cleaning up someone's desk is a sure way to leave them helpless, as they will have arranged crucial parts of their memory there. The more prepackaged, the less flexible an interface is, the more arbitrary knowledge the user must hang onto. With more flexibility, the user can create cues that work because they mean something.

Handwriting is an example of a natural cue system that has been partially lost through computers. It is noteworthy to me that through handwriting, we can tell WHO wrote a document, and even sometimes distinguish the person's mood, without reading the text. Not only does handwriting convey something of the writer to others, it conveys aspects of the meaning of the text to the reader. Each nuance of script is a record of the moment the idea was clear enough to write down - it has a reminding function. If I enter a room to do something, and I forget what it was, I can go back to the spot where I last knew what I was doing and be reminded of my purpose. Why is that so? I don't have a sign on the wall that says 'You left to go make a phone call'. There may be no visual cue related to my task. But the decision took place in a setting with visual elements, and those same elements invoke the memory of the idea. If I am giving a presentation, I know what I plan to say, but I carry notes to remind me of my outline and important points. In my case, printed notes don't work! They are new, and they don't invoke the memory of having decided what to say. When every keystroke looks and feels the same, certain nuances in regard to the meaning of the text are lost.

Different people have a greater or lesser ability to cope with meaningless cues that require memorization. Mine has always been lesser. Learning to tell time was, for me, an incredibly difficult experience. I don't recall having had any moral objection to knowing what time it was. The problem was with the "visual aid kit" the school employed to teach children to tell time. This kit involved a record, gigantic headphones, and cardboard clocks with spinning dials. Part of the illustration on these boards was an airplane that flew around the perimeter of the clock. To demonstrate the right answer, you had to move the airplane around the clock face. No one could tell me what airplanes had to do with clocks; I refused to go on until someone could. I realize that I have a similar emotional aversion to "<ALT> C" or "/pattern". When people who do not use computer cringe at the thought of them, this is one of their deeply felt objections. The path between what I want to accomplish and the accomplishment should remain sensible and meaningful to me each step of the way.


The network is rife with meaningless cues of all sorts, from the interface to the content. Some packages, such as Mosaic, allow for some common view of the network, minimizing the number of details to be memorized or stuck in post-it-note form to the edge of the screen. These show more promise for a time when we will have access to direct network connections from home. At the moment, we still need to struggle through newsreaders and the like, but I expect this will change in the near future.

But information is subject to the same design requirements as objects. You have to be able to recognize what it is, what it's there for and how to use it. On the network, this is a problem. Using a gopher for example, I have some [meaningless] cues about the items displayed on my screen; I can tell by a "/" or "." whether the item is another directory or a file, but what is the nature of the file? If I retrieve 4 screens of items, each marked as a file, all with nearly identical or unilluminating filenames, I require some means of distinguishing further among them. Gone are visual cues that allow me to distinguish among books on a shelf. I do appreciate that filenames are called "filenames" rather than titles. Book titles have evolved to convey a certain amount of information about the contents. Filenames could stand to evolve into titles. I also require knowledge about the length of the document and something of its nature. Is it a bulletin board posting? If so, is it an FAQ? Is it a course listing? A bibliographic record? If I search on WAIS, who do I easily identify the relative value of the sources to choose from? Some have names that indicate their scope, others do not.

The most common complaint I have heard about the internet is that of 'navigation'. How do you know where you are? How do you get back? In Things that Make us Smart, Donald Norman proposed a solution:

Searching a large database is like wandering through a maze of paths and trails, and the guidance required is therefore signs and maps. What are the alternatives? Simple. Why have any organization? Why have a space? Much as I argued that dictionaries need not be organized but should instead simply make available whatever information you request, why not do the same with the information of the world? [14]

This solution creates two problems. We are still left with search results that tell us nothing of their nature. And this approach diminishes access to those who are 'navigators' rather than 'searchers' by nature. That there is such a distinction, I have no doubt. I encounter 'navigators' at the reference desk; they do not want to have a book title in mind, they just want to know where the books on Proust are. I have learned to stop trying to turn navigators into searchers; I give them half a call number and invite them back if they don't find what they need.

Another problem with the network is forming a mental model for it. The introduction to every seminar, lecture, book or article about the network proposes the same mental model, which is geographically based. No one ever fails to mention that, without leaving your chair, you can 'be' in Minneapolis, or Sydney, Australia, or New York City. The proposed mental model rarely includes reference to the nature of what you will find there. What concerns me is that, while true in some sense, this model does not illuminate the user's understanding of the content of the network. Imagine taking a tour of the library, and the first point the tour guide makes is that you will encounter writings from Minneapolis, Sydney and New York. This is also true, but does it tell you how to conceive of a library?

This mental model does have some effect. It creates a vague geographic sense, a sense of motion and travel. We 'navigate' rather than 'browse'. This implies that the user's attention is focused on the experience of manipulating the images on the screen rather than on their content. A different model, in which geography is less relevant, might be a more useful tool for conceiving of the network.

A final note about the network, and one which I raised previously, concerns the nature of the 'information explosion'. Part of the 'explosion' is an aspect of McLuhan's "medium is the message" maxim. The computer screen lends authority to any text displayed on it. If a man walks up to me on the street and mumbles incomprehensibly at me, I would not say that he had conveyed information. If he handed me a leaflet, containing the text of his soliloquy, I would not call it information, but someone might. If I scanned the leaflet into a file and put it on the net, it begins to look more like information. As an idea is brought from an oral context to a literate one, it gains the power that we attribute to literacy, even if the content is unchanged. This is true as the text moves from a literate to a networked context.


My original sense of the impact of literacy was that it changed people's knowledge, that the depth of knowledge lessened as they stored it on paper. I envisioned 'networked literacy' having a similar impact - that we would become more accustomed to being 'aware' of images on our screen as opposed to knowing a thing. This opinion involved a certain misconception about non-literate knowledge. According to Albert Lord, author of Singer of Tales, non-literate storytellers employ the same tools for 'storing' information, they just aren't visible tools. Lord writes:

Oral epic song is narrative poetry composed in a manner evolved over many generations by singers of tales who did not know how to write; it consists of the building of metrical lines and half lines by means of formulas and formulaic expressions, and the building of songs by the use of themes. By formula I mean a group of works which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea. By theme I refer to the repeated incidents and descriptive passages in songs. [The singer's] art consists not so much in learning through repetition the time-worn formulas as in the ability to compose and recompose phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established by the basic formulas. [15]

Our means of retaining knowledge only becomes more tangible, as we employ writing and computing. What is interesting to me is that the meaning of the song is one of the tools used to reproduce it. This is compared to literate knowledge, where the patterns used to reproduce the text in one's mind [the alphabet] do not insure that the meaning of the text will be conveyed.

Thomas West, author of In the Mind's Eye, argues that computers offer the possiblity of an expansion of knowledge to include non-literate styles of thinking. West studies people with dyslexia and their response to the visual cues offered by computers. West suggests that by reorienting people to visual interpretations of knowledge, computers will address people who are marginalized in a literate society.


While I have my doubts about West's optimistic outlook, I do believe that computers and networked information holds the potential he suggests. The flexibility of the computer's interface and future developments in design may allow it to be more accessible to people with a wider variety of creative styles. The entertainment business may very well be the inspiration for a new look at the basic design of the computer, as people will be using the same screen for ergonomically incompatible purposes. This too would make computer use easier for a wider variety of people. I also think, however, that it is our 'disorderly' way of thinking that allows us to attribute such importance to networked information; that we are so influenced by mental images and sensations of 'traversing the globe' via the net that our experience of the network becomes imbued with a sense of power not merited by the actual content of the net. As the novelty of the idea of being connected to a database in Australia wears off, perhaps the people will address the content and organization of the net more carefully.


Carlsson, Chris. "The shape of Truth to Come: New Media and Knowledge."

Draper, Stephen W. and Donald Norman. User Centered System Design. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1986.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind; The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, Basic Books. 1993

John-Steiner, Vera. Notebooks of the Mind; Explorations of Thinking. New York, Harper and Row. 1987.

Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. New York, Antheneum. 1976

Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Doubleday. 1988.

Norman, Donald A. Things That Make Us Smart; Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. New York, Addison Wesley. 1993.

West, Thomas G. In the Mind's Eye; Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity. Buffalo, New York, Prometheus Books. 1991.

Wright, Patricia. "The Need for Theories of NOT reading: Some Psychological Aspects of the Human-Computer Interface". Working Models of Human Perception. London, Academic Press. 1988. p.320-340.


[1] John-Steiner, Vera. Notebooks of the Mind; Explorations of Thinking. New York, Harper and Row. 1987. p.85

[2] Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind; The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, Basic Books. 1993 ed. p.xii.

[3] Ibid. p.xx

[4] West, Thomas C. In the Mind's Eye; Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Learning Difficulties and the Ironies of Creativity. Buffalo, New York, Prometheus Books. 1991. p.31.

[5]Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Doubleday. 1988. p.54-55

[6]Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind; The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, Basic Books. 1993 ed. p.xiii

[7] Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Doubleday. 1988. p.23.

[8] Ibid. p. 13.

[9]Ibid. p.38.

[10] Ibid. p. 115.

[11]Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey. New York, Putnam's Sons. 1972.

[12]John-Steiner, Vera Notebooks of the Mind; Explorations of Thinking. New York, Harper and Row. 1987. p.16

[13]Buxton, William. "There's More to Interaction than Meets the Eye: Some Issues in Manual Input." in User Centered System Design; New Perspectives in Human-Computer Interaction. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1986. p.319.

[14]Norman, Donald A. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. New York, Addison Wesley. 1993. p.179.

[15]Lord, Albert The Singer of Tales. New York, Antheneum. 1976. p. 4-5.

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