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.

Do we really need handwriting any more?

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2009

cursive letter jBruce Sterling flags up a different kind of dead media in a Boston Globe story bemoaning the death of cursive handwriting:

“My first reaction was horror,” Florey said in an interview at her home, “then I thought, ‘Why would anyone use handwriting in today’s world?’ I write my books on the computer. I discovered two schools of thought: One is that it wouldn’t matter if nobody learned handwriting because we all have computers, and the other is that this is an interesting, historic, valuable, and beautiful skill that has been around for thousands of years, and we are just tossing it out.”

The thing to note here is that it’s not necessarily a computer-driven death of literacy, per se (although that’s a common enough complaint, despite the lack of solid evidence to back it up). People can still read as well as ever; it’s doing “joined-up writing” – as it was referred to when I was at school – that people struggle with, and I’m not sure that’s as terrible a loss as it could be. [image by tacomabibelot]

I still handwrite all the time, but I almost always use block caps because it’s faster and easier to re-read (though those familiar with my handwriting might disagree on the latter point, with some considerable justification). What the people bemoaning cursive’s decline seem to not realise is that styles of handwriting go out of fashion very quickly; in my day-job at a museum library, many of our visitors struggle to read copperplate script from less than a century ago, and most of them are highly literate.

There’s a clear argument that the lack of the ability to write by hand in any form would be a tragedy, and I suspect that schools may well be skipping over the skill in deference to computer use (which I suspect maybe closely related to the increase in dyslexia diagnosis), but to bemoan the loss of cursive is to miss the point. You might as well complain that not enough people design websites with Comic Sans as the main font…

Teh intarwub – still killing reading, apparently, despite the evidence otherwise

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2009

rabbit reading emailO NOES!!!1 Teh webz be steelin ur brain-bukkitz! This doom-mongering about the internet and its insidious power to erode literacy just never seems to go out of fashion with opinion columns, but I’m surprised to find this one on The Guardian‘s technology blog, courtesy of one Naomi Alderman. Here’s a few choice snippets (because, y’know, I doubt you can be bothered to read the whole thing):

… reading on the internet isn’t the same as reading a book. Recent studies have indicated that online reading tends to break down in the face of “texts that require steady focus and linear attention”. University teacher friends have told me that some of their freshers have started to write in a similar fashion to the way we apparently read online. All the right keywords are in the right paragraphs, but the sentences don’t follow on coherently from each other. Their essays are meant to be skimmed, not read.


My family is fortunate to have preserved some of the hundreds of letters my grandmother exchanged with her brothers, Alan and Henry, while they were fighting in the second world war. They didn’t write these letters to improve their skills in comprehension and composition; they did it because it was the only way to stay in touch. If they’d had mobile phones and been able to call each other every day, I’m sure they’d have done so.

Blah blah blah. TL; DR, complete with a reference to WW2 to shame us in the light of the sacrifices of our elders, who had the dignity to sit in muddy trenches writing letters while they waited to be shot to burger meat. But for the classic “everything was better in the old days” capstone quote:

But while I hate to side with the neophobes I can’t help feeling a little concerned; as the loss of the ancient Greek oral culture shows, ways of thinking and using our brains can disappear for good.

YA RLY; new ways of thinking are always bad news, aren’t they? Hey, if it hadn’t been for those damned Greeks and their progressive philosophies, we’d still be sat in little stone houses thinking that lightning storms were the gods playing war… how far we’ve fallen since then! [image by tm lv]

O NOES teh intertubes R killin ur litracy!!!1 (yes, again)

Paul Raven @ 28-07-2008

stacks of booksAnother six months passes, and yet again it’s time to fire up the already-old (and probably unwinnable) argument over whether or not the all-pervasive power of TEH INTERNETS is eroding morals and family values contributing to the decline and fall of the Holy Roman Empire vaguely connected to the perceived decline in literacy in developed nations. [image by austinevan]

To be fair, this New York Times piece is pretty balanced, and the only sensationalist moments it contains are the wild-eyed proclamations of the old guard:

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

Right, of course. And if it hadn’t been for the decadent influence of the gramophone, the Great War would never have happened! Damn kids, get off my lawn! And don’t bring up shifting educational standards again – it’s high time you learned not to talk back to your elders!

Sheesh. I expect it’s a case of “seek and you shall find” with these people, to be honest. After all, people have been lamenting the decline of the younger generation since Plato, and we seem to have made it quite a way since then.

What about you, dear readers? Has following Futurismic turned your grey matter green?

Coffee-table bookshelves and the value of literacy

Paul Raven @ 24-07-2007

bookshelf table

Futurismic readers with money to spare and a charitable mindset might like to make my year by buying me one of these nifty coffee-table-bookshelf combos to hold some of my home library. My book collection pales into insignificance when held up against the vast collections of rare and unique texts that affluent CEOs have stashed away … but some is better than none, especially as it seems that poor literacy is a strong indicator of early mortality.

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