Why Can’t Things Get Worse?

“I think the state of reading and writing will be *different* in ten years as a result of the Internet. Languages evolve, and established practices for writing evolve; when books were hand-lettered by scribes, they were written very differently than they are now, but it’s hard to make a case that the practice got “worse.” The Internet and associated publishing tools — blogs, Twitter, and the like — may have an accelerating effect on those changes; the art of reading, writing, and rendering knowledge is likely to evolve more quickly than it has in the past, and there are some who would argue that that is a bad thing. I think it will be different; not better, not worse, but not the same.” – Rachel Smith, vice president, New Media Consortium

The Future of the Internet, Part 2: A review of responses to a tension pair about the impact of the internet on reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

This idea that literacy will be “different” but not necessarily bad fascinates me for several reasons. The traditional analogy is to the transition from oral to written culture. From the (theoretical) point of view of oral culture, the shift to the printed page was an enormous loss of individual memory, in particular. No one needed to memorize thousands of lines of poetry anymore. From our point of view, it was a huge gain in collective memory. Knowledge would not be lost with the individual. It’s a net win.

Similarly, the idea is that while there will be some loss in the transition from traditional to digital media, the losses will be compensated by the gains. I am not quite sure I buy this argument. Those scribes noted by Smith originally wrote without punctuation, standardized spelling, or capitalization, for example. It’s not just a neutral difference; those standards make both reading and writing more efficient, and so better. If change can result in a net win, it can result in a loss, too.

Predicting the future is never a winning game, but this “difference” argument seems profoundly divorced from contemporary history. “Literacy” is not a fixed concept, it’s a set of skills that persist, among other things, becuase they have real economic efficacy. “Literacy” is a form of cultural capital. In early stages of industrialization, for example, workers don’t need to be literate. Workers might resist by becoming literate on their own, as it were, but capitalist culture won’t encourage it. Not yet.

In later stages of industrialization such as our own, the future is still not quite clear. Many technologies– from icons, to international street signs, to new media– suggest that literacy may no longer be defined in terms of reading and writing per se. (Print could become a form of resistance, too.) Maybe the new literacy will minimize knowledge, in other words. Perhaps only a minority will retain the traditional literacy skills that underwrite power.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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