Today, Wired magazine gives us an article, Clive Thompson on the New Literacy, busting the supposedly conventional wisdom that cellphones, social networking, and the Internet in general have accelerated the decline of writing skills. The author says we’re actually in an age of rising literacy unparalleled since classical Greece. Er, what?
The article retails some interesting facts. The study on which Thompson mainly leans says college students do a whopping 38% of their writing on computers and cellphones for an audience of their peers. It’s nice to have the word “kairos” for the rhetorical skill of fitting one’s communication style to expected audience, and the observation that today’s Internet-experienced younger people are remarkably good at this is astute. Of course they are – they’ve had to adapt to a dizzying array of communications channels, in all of which writing is a critical skill but each of which has its own peculiar forms and constraints.
But…but…why is this news? I’ve been writing that computers were nourishing an explosion of literacy, writing craft and wordplay since USENET days in the 1980s. I was pretty emphatic about it in The New Hacker’s Dictionary in the early 1990s. It wasn’t exactly difficult even then to predict that if hundreds of thousands of people spent lots of time at keyboards their writing was probably going to improve…if sometimes from a dismal base.
I also think that Wired is failing at historical perspective. The author credits texting and twittering with encouraging haiku-like precision, and there’s something to that – but ain’t he ever heard of a telegraph? We’ve been here before; as in so many other ways, the “Victorian Internet” of telegraph lines anticipated social phenomena we’re prone to think of as uniquely modern. The difference, I suppose, is that in 1870 it was less easy to get paid for breathless writing on the topic. (Rising average wealth levels matter.)
As communication costs fall, people invest more time in communication, and the expected value of good communication skills rises. And you get the kind of behavior your technologies reward. From that perspective, it’s pretty clear that the value of communication skills has been rising steadily since at least the Black Death, the last serious episode of depopulation in the Western world. Consequently, there has probably never been a generation since in which average skill level at this didn’t rise – at least, not outside the imaginations of grumpy old people who always think the kids are going to hell.
“Ah,” you say, “but now you’ve changed the subject. Yes, that’s a good economic argument for total communications skills improving on average over time. But we were talking about writing!” Right you are, there. I’ll even agree that the invention of the telephone, by displacing letters and telegraphs, may have caused a century-long anomaly during which people budgeted most of their communications skill points away from writing even as general communication skill was still being more rewarded over time, and thus still tending to rise.
Still, the point is that the era of Big Telephone was an anomaly. It probably won’t be repeated; we’ve learned, culturally, that there are lots of communication tasks that point-to-point voice doesn’t handle well. Thus, writing is back — and the Internet, far from being a break with the past, puts us back on the historical tend curve of rising literacy.