20 May 2008

Technology is changing our perception of literacy

“For anyone under the age of 20, the world being experienced is one where the internet has always existed, and where everyone who matters is only a click, speed dial or text message away. “Tomorrow’s adults,” says Mr [Mark] Federman [of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto], “live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” Their direct experience of the world is wholly different from yours or mine.”

– quote from a recent article From literacy to digiracy on Economist.com

When a friend proposed that, with the advent of computers and the Internet, reading has become a thing of the past, I argued back. I felt that, on the contrary, reading has become popular again – thanks to the Internet. The only difference is that, today, the reading page has become digital – and decidedly vertical. To put it in an old-fashioned way, today, people are sitting up and reading. (My school teachers would have been happy to see this.)

That’s because computers and the Internet bring with them their own charm. To start with, computers and the Internet provide access to volumes and volumes of reading material we never knew existed. And, we are delighted to read them now, as they open our minds and increase our knowledge manifold.

Second, computers and the Internet bring with them still images, audio, animation and video – which means photos, music, movies and video games on our fingertips. It means colour and action. It means participation and interactivity. It means a whole new world of entertainment.

And finally, computers and the Internet bring with them connectivity and openness, encouraging us to create and contribute to the larger communication and socio-cultural processes… and touch each other’s lives.

But, it hasn’t always been this easy. Perhaps, it still isn’t. When I see the detractors of technology come charging at me on their high horses, the best I can do is blog about my thoughts and feelings. Once again, thanks to computers and the Internet. So, I was delighted to read an article on Economist.com, titled From literacy to digiracy, which discusses these same issues.

Here are some excerpts:

“Literacy may be under attack from electronic media, but that’s actually nothing new. In fact, the assault on the written word began not with the Macintosh computer in 1984, but with Samuel Morse’s demonstration of the telegraph in 1844 — an innovation a colleague on The Economist insists, quite correctly, on calling the “Victorian internet”.

In an essay on why Johnny and Janey can’t read (and why Mr and Ms Smith can’t teach), Mark Federman of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, argued that the telegraph was the first to “undo” the effects of the written word.

Where the phonetic alphabet separated the sound of a word from its meaning; and encoded that sound in symbols we call letters; and combined those symbols into hierarchical groupings called words, sentences, paragraphs and, ultimately, books; the telegraph recombined those symbols with sound — enabling the instantaneous transmission of information from person to person across vast distances.

If the telegraph was the starting point, Mr Federman reckons we are probably half way through a 300-year transition out of the world of mass literacy. That world began when Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1455, and gave birth along the way to the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, and finally the Industrial Revolution — not to mention the modern era of newspapers, universal education and, yes, mass literacy.

Why 300 years? Because that’s how long it takes to reform social institutions. It’s the period needed for a generation to cease hearing about the way things used to be done from great-grandparents, who had heard about such things from their own great-grandparents.”

[Citation: From literacy to digiracy, Economist.com, 16 May 2008.]

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