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A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future, November-December 2009


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Information technology, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence may render written language “functionally obsolete” by 2050.

By Patrick Tucker

For the literate elite — which includes everyone from Barack Obama to this spring’s MFA graduates — the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the demise of reading has become obligatory theater. Poets, writers, and teachers alike stand over the remains of a once-proud book culture like a Greek chorus gloomily crowded around a fallen king. How can it be that less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, or the percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period (as measured by the NEA in 2007),* or that 40 million Americans read at the lowest literacy level?

The answer that rises most immediately to meet this anguish is: the image makers. Television, the Pied Piper of the last century, has been joined in its march by video games, YouTube, and an assortment of other visual tempters that are ferrying Western culture further away from the nourishing springs of literature. The public appetite for images — scenes of war, staged or otherwise, music videos, game shows, celebrities roaming the streets of Los Angeles in a daze — seems both limitless in scope and apocalyptic in what it portends for the future.

To the literary eye, the culture of the image has grown as large as Godzilla, as omnipresent as an authoritarian government, and as cruel and erratic as the Furies. In our rush to blame the moving picture for the state of our cultural disarray, we’ve overlooked the fact that — as a carrier of data, thoughts, ideas, prayers, and promises — the image is neither as functional nor as versatile as text.

The real threat to the written word is far more pernicious. Much like movie cameras, satellites, and indeed television, the written word is, itself, a technology, one designed for storing information. For some 6,000 years, the human mind was unable to devise a superior system for holding and transmitting data. By the middle of this century, however, software developers and engineers will have remedied that situation. So the greatest danger to the written word is not the image; it is the so-called “Information Age” itself.

Texting, the Brief, Golden Age of Internet Communication

Consider, first, the unprecedented challenges facing traditional literacy in today’s Information Age. The United States spends billions of dollars a year trying to teach children how to read and fails often. Yet, mysteriously, declining literacy and functional nonliteracy have yet to affect technological innovation in any obvious way. New discoveries in science and technology are announced every hour; new and ever-more complicated products hit store shelves (or virtual store shelves) all the time. Similarly, human creation of information — in the form of data — has followed a fairly predictable trend line for many decades, moving sharply upward with the advent of the integrated circuit in the mid-twentieth century.

The world population is on track to produce about 988 billion gigabytes of data per year by 2010. We are spending less time reading books, but the amount of pure information that we produce as a civilization continues to expand exponentially. That these trends are linked, that the rise of the latter is causing the decline of the former, is not impossible.

In a July 2008 Atlantic article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr beautifully expresses what so many have been feeling and observing silently as society grapples with the Internet and what it means for the future:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory…. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.… My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Information Age boosters such as Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You), Don Tapscott (Grown Up Digital), and Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture) argue that information technology is creating a smarter, more technologically savvy public.

These authors point out that the written word is flourishing in today’s Information Era. But the Internet of 2009 may represent a brilliant but transitory Golden Age. True, the Web today allows millions of already well-read scholars to connect to one another and work more effectively. The Internet’s chaotic and varied digital culture is very much a product of the fact that people who came by their reading, thinking, and research skills during the middle of the last century are now listening, arguing, debating, and learning as never before.

One could draw reassurance from today’s vibrant Web culture if the general surfing public, which is becoming more at home in this new medium, displayed a growing propensity for literate, critical thought. But take a careful look at the many blogs, post comments, MySpace pages, and online conversations that characterize today’s Web 2.0 environment. One need not have a degree in communications (or anthropology) to see that the back-and-forth communication that typifies the Internet is only nominally text-based. Some of today’s Web content is indeed innovative and compelling in its use of language, but none of it shares any real commonality with traditionally published, edited, and researched printed material.

This type of content generation, this method of “writing,” is not only subliterate, it may actually undermine the literary impulse. As early as 1984, the late linguist Walter Ong observed that teletype writing displayed speech patterns more common to ancient aural cultures than to print cultures (a fact well documented by Alex Wright in his book Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages). The tone and character of the electronic communication, he observed, was also significantly different from that of printed material. It was more conversational, more adolescent, and very little of it conformed to basic rules of syntax and grammar. Ong argued compellingly that the two modes of writing are fundamentally different. Hours spent texting and e-mailing, according to this view, do not translate into improved writing or reading skills. New evidence bares this out. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that text messaging use among teenagers in Ireland was having a highly negative effect on their writing and reading skills.

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* The original version of this article stated "between 1982 and 2007, reading declined by nearly 20% for the overall U.S. population and 30% for young adults aged 18–24." This was in keeping with the statistics that had been published at the time or writing. More recent data from the NEA has shown a slight reversal. The Endowment's 2009 report reversed a 20-year downward trend and for the first time showed increasing rates of reading with young adults age 18 to 24 leading the way.



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