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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

THE NEW ILLITERACY

This is a repost from a few years back about what is happening to reading and comprehension
"Wow, it's a really different conversation when you're talking with someone and listening to them"
-Students at Hofstra University

Every time some new technology comes out, people bemoan its dangers and problems, warning how it can be misused and complaining about how it causes some degradation in virtue and tradition.  This has always been true, and will always be true until kingdom come.
When the buggy came out, people complained about a disconnect from nature, about the noise, about the sloth involved in sitting while a horse did all the work, and so on.  Now roads were being built which blighted the natural landscape, now horses are mistreated because of their harnesses and whips, on and on.  It doesn't matter what technology is developed, someone always sees a problem.
Yet there's some truth in these complaints as well.  Most good science fiction is cautionary; it warns of the dangers and implications of any new technology.  Robotics seem like a great idea that will save us labor and enhance life, yet how many books have warned how this could go horribly wrong?
All technology is good and bad, as this world tends to be.  The fall of man brought a taint of bad to all things, even good things.  Nuclear power can bring light and heat, but also weapons and radiation burns.  Chemistry brings us cures to polio and drug addictions.  Dynamite was invented to save lives and help with construction, yet it also brought bombs and destruction.  The problems come not from the technology its self, but from our misuse or violent use of them.
The internet is not exactly novel, but is still relatively new and the full implications of its existence have yet to be understood.  And with it has come a great deal of good, from communication, to education, to information, entertainment, employment, and beyond.  The internet means I can talk to friends around the world, write on this blog to hundreds of people a day, and keep in touch with relatives I haven't seen for decades.
At the same time, there are problems as many have pointed out over and over.  Surprisingly, one of the more subtle, less-understood problems of the internet is that of of literacy.  One would presume that a medium of interaction that is primarily driven by reading and writing would increase literacy and reading habits.  After all, if you have to read and type answers  -- and people do practically all day -- you would think most people would thereby increase their reading and writing ability, broadening their vocabulary and concentration levels.
ILLITERACY OF TEXT
On the contrary, however,  the internet has actually had the opposite effect, primarily through smart phones.  Instead of increasing reading, the internet has tended to decrease it.  And in the end, the result has been a sort of loss of literacy, even while more people are reading than ever.  To understand this, you have to look more closely at a few effects of the ubiquity of the cell phone.
On average, teenage boys send 30 texts a day, and girls 80, although the average total is around 3000 a month, which means some are really ripping out the messages.  Teenagers rarely use their cell phone to actually talk on, preferring texting for communication.  This puzzles me, although it is more private than speaking into the phone and probably has a more coded, secret feel to it like passing notes in class rather than whispering.
Cell phones have been dominant in life so long that even college students today have grown up presuming their existence like their own hands.  Growing up with a cell phone within reach and texting as the preferred method of communication has taken its toll on young people.
There is some evidence that young people are even starting to lose the ability to accurately read facial expressions and tone of voice in their fellow man because they primarily relate through screens and texting than through interpersonal communication.  This shouldn't be too shocking; you've probably seen groups of young people all face down in their own device and shut off from speech by ear buds.  They might be communicating with each other, but smiley faces and so on only work in text.  It takes a different skill set to learn, display, and read facial expressions and tone of voice.
Further, reading on the internet has some key differences from reading a book.  Long-form writing (such as I tend to do) is not as easy to absorb on a screen as on paper.  There are too many distractions such as wondering what people said on Facebook or whether people responded to your tweet, even if nothing is showing up on your screen to grab your attention.  
Hyperlinks allow people to jump to sources and other places related almost instantly, but each jump takes you away from the article or story, interrupting your train of thought and the author's carefully crafted sequence of ideas.  Watching a screen is also more difficult than holding a book for a variety of reasons, although devices such as pads or an e-reader help (the size and mobility).  This tends to reduce the amount of time anyone wants to focus on any one article.
Instead of crafting the ability to read more, the Internet has tended to lead people into the opposite direction so that they read less at a time.  Overall the average person is tending to read more than they did 20 years ago, but they read small bits rather than long texts.  140 characters can be burned through almost as fast as your eye can capture them, but they cannot communicate any sort of complex ideas or build an argument or story.  And with the ocean of possibilities the internet offers, its difficult to stay on any one site or article long.  Its like being in a room with piles of every single piece of favorite food you love, and staying just on one food to savor it and truly enjoy a full meal of it.
I have to shut off my wireless access when I work on a book, because its too easy to get distracted and check something.  Its like reading a dictionary; I don't stop with just one word, I just browse and check out definitions one after another.  The internet is too distracting, entertaining, and easy to move around in rather than staying at one spot and absorbing it.
DISCIPLINE AND FOCUS
And if you have never learned the discipline of staying on one topic, reading something carefully, and really taking in the story or ideas being presented - or being taken into them - then you are unready to do so later in life.  And that's what young people in school (and their teachers) are dealing with.  Combined with the continuous coddling of and pandering to young people who never learn discipline or putting up with something they don't care for, this tends to make children largely illiterate.
Its not that they cannot read, its that they will not read anything longer than a short segment.  And worse, they cannot really understand anything of any length.  True reading comprehension requires an investment of concentration and time, as well as experience in pulling apart meaning and structure in text which short snippets does not allow.  I tend to write in fairly complex combinations of clauses and ideas which it takes experience reading to understand.  That kind of thing cannot be obtained by reading 160 character texts and 140 character tweets all day.
What happens is that people become overwhelmed, and are unable to decipher a longer sentence, let alone a paragraph building up to a conclusion.  They are able to grasp small segments at a time, and when these small segments are dependent on longer portions to make full sense of the idea, then they become confused and disinterested.
So effectively these young people are becoming effectively illiterate; able to read but unable to understand anything beyond bite-sized snippets of data.  Like classes on understanding poetry, there is a need to explain how to understand long-form writing.
APRON STRINGS
There are other problems with this technology however.  Studies are showing that young peoples' use and dependence on cell phones tends to make them tethered to and dependent on parents.  They are always in touch and always have the parent to tap into rather than learning skills and experience to deal with even small events around them.  What shoes to buy?  What direction to travel?  What is a bargain?  What did he mean?
Further, young people tend to interact exclusively with peers when not dealing with their parents.  This means they are focused and tied to peers, more dependent on fellow immature and inexperienced views of life and reality than with a varied age group.  Even more than ever, young people are utterly baffled by and unready to deal with older people.  Its an odd twist where, instead of old people unable to relate to younger, the young are unable to relate in any way to older.  The generation gap is going the opposite direction.
This has serious consequences.  Parents and teens have always had difficulty communicating, but now that is worsened by the lack of ability to build any sort of argument or conclusion.  The very methods by which we communicate are being eroded between generations.  Young people are less equipped and experienced in dealing with logic and proper reasoning without stripping away the very tools used to teach them.
IMPLICATIONS
Consider what this does to productivity and communication.  Unable to study and understand longer concepts and a carefully built logical conclusion, a generation or more is growing up unable to properly learn and interact.  What happens to the language and culture when this takes hold more broadly?
What happens to an audience raised and fed on catch phrases and spin when presented with someone who uses them exclusively to disguise their true intent or inability to do the job they are seeking?  What reaction by well-meaning statists will attempt to address these problems?
It isn't that technology is all bad, its that our use of it tends to find the most comfortable, immediately rewarding, personally beneficial, and selfish results.  And in this case, its causing serious problems with the basic ability of humanity to communicate.
ANSWERS
There are solutions, of course.  Limiting cell phone ownership and use until a child has demonstrated some degree of responsibility and communication skills is one.  Limiting the use of these tools while young is another.  No texting while in the same house is a very good technique.  No texting while company is around is another.
Doing things that require face-to-face interaction is a very important tool as well.  This teaches young people to listen, to be patient, and to learn to deal with people in person rather than over a tool.  Learning manners and politeness, such as what hurt you can cause through words, is a very critical life skill.
Video games can be fun, and the multiplayer ones (especially the Wii games) can seem like they are interpersonal, but they are not.  You are side-by-side and never really interacting with the other person, only their avatar on a screen.  Board games, sports, lawn games, charades, and such all not only teach communication skills, but force people to deal with each other face-to-face.  
Reading to each other is another important skill, because the way you read, the tone of voice, and so on teaches young people a great deal about meaning and mood as delivered by speech.  It also makes them have to deal with longer segments of text and allows discussion of that afterward.  Reading difficult or significant works such as the Bible also teaches comprehension and stretches young minds.
Activities which involve several generations of people interacting is a great benefit to younger people as well.  It helps you teach them how to behave and respect elders, how to interact with non-peers, and they might even learn something from their elders as well as younger people.
Merely forcing young people to sit down and do something that takes time which they might not particularly prefer is a terrific skill for later in life.  Musical instruments, singing, arts and crafts such as pottery, sculpting, painting, knitting, etc all force long-term investment in a project with a tangible result.  They might hate it at the time, but in the end they will have something they can point to that they've accomplished and have learned critical skills for later in life.
The internet is perfectly fine as yet another tool, and has a lot of benefits, but used unwisely can be incredibly destructive in ways sometimes so subtle it takes years to truly understand the damage.  I wouldn't say its easy to avoid, but it is hardly costly or physically demanding to do so.  And we all benefit from avoiding the bad while embracing the good.

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