Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Texting Our Way to Illiteracy

For millions of years, before language, all we had to understand each other (besides the loudness of grunts) were facial expressions and body language. And the occasional blow upside the head. Survival often depended on correctly interpreting the subtler signals. Now we use computers to communicate.

Almost none of that subtlety that got us here can be conveyed by emoticons. No longer speaking face-to-face, we prefer texting, email, and tweets. If you consider these forms to be writing, then more people are writing today than ever before. But fewer people are writing in David McCullough’s sense, when he said, “writing is thinking.”

If you argue that more books are being published today, you are correct—in absolute terms. But the percentage of people writing in any form with depth has decreased. America’s population has more than doubled since 1950. Are there now more than double the number of books of quality? (This despite the incredible ease provided by computers for writing, editing, and researching on the Internet.)

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court gives a lesson about absolute and relative numbers. If I may presume to summarize, he tells some working folk that it’s not how much you make (in absolute numbers) but how much it will buy (the relative number is the true value). Yet, governments and politicians use absolute numbers to tell us we are better off than our predecessors. The phrases “adjusted for inflation” and “per capita” are rarely heard. It would be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

Sadder still is our state of declining literacy. Twain’s example is about the literacy of numbers, i.e., their meaning in context. Wikipedia calls literacy “the ability to read for knowledge and write coherently and think critically about the written word.” Texting and its lazy bedfellows cannot accomplish this. Without writing and thinking, the mere recognition of symbols is barely reading; it is just reacting to signals—like a trained ape. This level of reading can acquire information, but never knowledge. It cannot lead to writing or thinking. It is not literacy.

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