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  • Is the internet killing literacy, or pumping new life into it?

    Every year there’s a sky-is-falling warning about the death of literacy in America. A 2007 poll found that 27% of American adults hadn’t read a book in a year. More recently, Caleb Crain, writing in the New Yorker, cites a worldwide drop-off in reading on the order of the shrinking of the polar ice caps. Crain documents a 50% decline in American newspaper readership since 1970 and flat book sales, all of which foreshadow a world where fewer readers means fewer thinkers, fewer voters, and far less objectivity.

    One computer visionary thinks this growing illiteracy is actually good for business: Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs rejected a suggestion that Amazon’s hot new e-book reader, the oddly-named Kindle, which sold out the day it went on sale, might eat into the iPod’s market, because – according to Jobs – 40% of Americans don’t read books, and for him fewer readers apparently equals more listeners and viewers.

    Amazon's Kindle e-book reader 

    Amazon’s Kindle, an eBook reader, sells for $399 and can download books and other content wirelessly, but according to Steve Jobs, the written word is no match for the iPod.

    Though Crain is quick to blame the subprime culture of television and video for the latest recession in literacy, he doesn’t implicate the iPod in the decline of reading. Crain is curiously silent about the impact on literacy of the rise in fundamentalism, a text-based religious practice with a built-in bias against rational, objective inquiry. But he acknowledges that at least for now, the internet might actually be a boon for reading, since most web sites are text based.

    Crain even cites a Michigan State University study showing that children can improve their reading by going online for as little as half an hour a day, whether they surf to gather information or they’re just chatting with friends. He adds this shocker, that “even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance,” though the study he cites makes no such claim. But Crain also warns that the “synergies” between surfing and reading will disappear as the popularity of YouTube moves the web away from text toward television.

    Many fans of reading argue that unlike visual media (YouTube), or face to face interaction (good, old-fashioned conversation), reading isolates us, giving us the time we need to reflect and look critically at our text. They posit a great divide separating oral from literate cultures (this despite the fact that for at least one hundred years, few societies have remained untouched by text, and the all literate cultures are permeated with speech as well). And they presume that reading radically changes our thought patterns, making possible everything from history to science and technology, not to mention modernism and even representative democracy.

    Reading may hold a place of special reverence in our culture, which is why declines in reading scores rate scare headlines, but imputing unique cognitive powers to literacy implies that the many interpreters of the arts, including music, photography and film, can never adequately evaluate the objects of their study, and that psychoanalysts can never understand their patients, with the same depth and detachment with which readers can scrutinize their books (as the eager and accepting consumers of propaganda and advertising prove, not all readers deploy critical interpretive skills when they decode text). And it presumes a model of silent, independent reading that is both a relatively recent development in the history of literacy, and one that is still not universal.


    Couple reading under trees

    Sometimes reading separates us, even when we’re together, as in the painting above; and sometimes it’s social, as in the photo below, where a lector reads to cigar workers at a Havana factory.

    Lector reads to cigar workers in Havana factory

    Predictors of the end of literacy like Crain, who calls his essay “The Twilight of the Book,” acknowledge that many computer activities involve text, but they complain that computer literacy isn’t really literacy, that email or IM are simply ways to make text approximate speech, producing a kind of “secondary orality” – a term made popular by Walter Ong that indicates a kind of modern move to recapture ancient oral culture – something almost tribal, rather than truly literate behavior (if taken to its extreme, such a view applied to drama, a literary art devoted to the approximation of speech, could push Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill into the world of soap opera).

    Despite the MSU findings, it’s not clear that computers are getting us to read more, or to read better or more critically. What is clear is that more and more people are porting their reading from the page to the screen – their reading for school, for work, and for pleasure, their reading of literary texts as well as instant messages. But there’s another, potentially more important way that computers are changing our literacy behavior: more and more of us are writing on screen, even those of us who never wrote much on paper.

    With the computer, more people are not just writing to copy text, the job of most writers since literacy levels in Western countries soared above 50% in the 19th century, but we’re also writing to create text. The computer, and its spinoff, the internet, have enabled new writing genres: email, the web page, the instant message, the blog, the Facebook page, fan fiction, to name just the most prominent, genres created by people who may not have thought of themselves as “creating” writers before, but who are now joining the authors club in droves, publishing their ideas and opinions online, and finding readers in cyberspace to read their posts.

    Reading may sometimes be solitary, and sometimes we write things we don’t intend to share. But literacy is a technologically-enabled form of communication. The pencil, the stylus, the printing press, the clay tablet, all of these are writing technologies, just as the computer is. And writing has always been social and interactive (writers seek audiences, readers seek out texts), so it’s no surprise, and probably it’s a cause for celebration, to find readers and writers exploring and expanding the online world in the same way they once did with the world on paper, only in greater numbers.

    And it just may be that the computer will force us to expand the school’s role in literacy education beyond the trinity of reading, writing, and arithmetic, to include teaching children how to code, so that they can fully exploit and expand the literacy potentials of the brave new digital world. I'm just glad that standardized tests didn't include a section on writing code when I was still taking those tests.


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