The internet as a literacy revolution

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2009

One of the more perennial modern rants is the one that decries the internet (or computers in general, or modern popular culture, or text messaging) as the ultimate enemy of literacy, a corrosive reagent eroding our ability to use the written word effectively – we’ve mentioned it quite a few times before here at Futurismic, in fact.

Well, not everyone agrees with that assessment… and it turns out that research bears out the opposite conclusion. Clive Thompson takes the podium at Wired to discuss the research of Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric who is convinced that the internet is actually producing “a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization”:

From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

[…] For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

Of course, the question as to whether Ancient Greek traditions of rhetoric hold the same validity today as they did in the time of Plato and Aristotle is open to debate… but the Cambrian explosion in our production of text is inescapable. Perhaps the public nature of web content is actually a Darwinian force, developing our ability to communicate, discuss and debate to ever greater levels of rhetorical skill? [via SlashDot]

Well, everywhere apart from YouTube comment threads, I guess.

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One Response to “The internet as a literacy revolution”

  1. Tom James says:

    Well, everywhere apart from YouTube comment threads, I guess.

    Troo dat’