“The new literacy” ain’t so new

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.

Categorized as Culture


  1. I’ve noticed that, when old people rant about the declining educational standards of the current generation, they’re ignoring the fact that more people today are being counted in metrics of education. Today, even “13 yr old girlz lol” are being counted among the Internet’s denizens, which lowers our perception of the current generation, while at the same time we’ve forgotten that there were many people fifty years ago who were pissed off at Sputnik because they thought it would literally collide with heaven and anger God, because they had no concept of the earth being a ball in a vast and mostly empty space.

    It’s easy to see declining educational standards if you compare all the people on the Internet with the elite of our grandparents’ generation. Of course, it’s that kind of thinking that gave us the news headline announcing that <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_Defeats_Truman”Dewey defeated Truman.

  2. Wired is glamour for wannabe geeks. Why do you even read it?

    ESR says: Normally I don’t. This time I tripped over a web reference.

  3. 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.

    “Oh, hey, you finally noticed those kids on my lawn? Yeah, most of them are now second and third generation.” :)

    I look forward to the day when people point to my games as proof that the first decade of the 21st century was a Golden Age, when children were expected to be able to think and reason geometrically and handle kinematics problems for fun, before they all got sucked into ThoughtSpace and brain implant social networks turned them into zombies.

    (Unless, of course, it turns out that this decade was a noticeable high water mark of Western Civilization… Then I’ll be grumpy about it, much the same way my parent’s generation is grumpy that we went to the Moon, and then stopped.)

  4. Peter Scott: You’ve conflated two historical cases.

    The erroneous poll was in 1936, conducted by the Literary Digest. It predicted easy victory for Republican Alf Landon. But Landon lost in the worst showing ever for a major-party candidate in a two-party contest: a 527-8 drubbing in the Electoral College. The Digest‘s “straw poll” had queried about 10,000,000 people, but its sample was badly skewed: its own subscribers, nearly all upper and upper middle class; automobile owners and telephone, also upper and middle class. The embarrassment was so deep that the Digest soon went out of business.

    The “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline appeared in 1948. The Chicago Tribune was the best-known screwup (due to the famous photo of Truman gleefully holding up the Tribune‘s front page), but at least one other major journal also jumped the gun in their election-result stories.

    The Tribune was misled by polls (not its own, but Gallup and others) which showed Dewey with a seemingly insurmountable lead. Truman was also obviously handicapped by two separate breakaway candidacies: Henry Wallace on the left, and Strom Thurmond in the south. Had the Tribune waited for actual returns from the east coast, they would have had a correct story, or at least not wrong. But the Tribune had another problem: the Linotype operators were on strike, and the Tribune was using photolithography to “set type”. This process took some hours longer; so the Tribune decided to print its prediction as news.

  5. Eric: Yes, “telegraphese” has long been a term for terse, compressed text. But the volume of telegrams was fairly small. Most people sent one or two in their whole lives. Only a few people, in communicative professions, sent telegrams regularly – a few dozen a month. Twitterers generate dozens of tweets every day, and there are far more of them. There are even more text messagers.

  6. We do still use voice telephony quite a lot. In day-to-day lives of normal people, telephones are now carried along everywhere people go, and they can make and answer calls on the spot wherever they are. Practically everyone has a so-called mobile phone. This has increased the use of voice communication over telephone compared to the days of wired-only telephony a couple decades ago.

    Moreover in business settings, we do a lot teleconferencing — nowadays more and more often with video, but it is still spoken communication. I have the impression that the use of telcos has also risen since, say, 1980.

  7. There’s a significant difference between the literary skill required for abbreviated ‘tweeting’ and engaging in rapid fire back-and-forth conversations…and the skill required to present a fully articulated subject in a coherent essay. The kids I encounter are profoundly illiterate with respect to the latter, but they can sure move those thumbs like lightning ;)

    I do think that more people are learning to extend themselves in the sphere of social/political blogging, however.

  8. It may be true that the general level of writing skills is improving, but the level of “published” writing has fallen.

    Before the Internet, the barriers to entry limited who could write to a wide audience. Reporters and columnists whose work was picked up by the wire services had their copy edited by people who knew the difference between “there”, “their”, and “they’re” without having to look them up. They were backed up by fact-checkers who caught many errors so they could be fixed before the readers could ever see them. Letters to the Editor from the readers were selected by editors, and may even have been corrected for obvious errors in grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling.

    Now, any Tom, Dick, or Hank with two neurons to rub together can open up a free blog and start publishing to the world. Even on web sites run by legacy media companies, content often goes up without a second pair of eyes to review it. Commenters can type illogical, incoherent remarks and have them visible to thousands or millions of people within mere seconds. The overall quality of writing most people see has fallen as a result.

  9. But this just begs the question of how writing skills can evaluated and compared with at least some plausible attempt at objectivity. Is it just the ability to encode the most information in the least number of characters, or is it OK to make some value judgements like eloquent, ugly, etc.?

  10. Just to take a contrarian approach, I think it could be just as reasonably argued that the reduction in the barrier-level in publishing has produced a social environment that might better be characterized as “spontaneous continuing education” as opposed to the “death-knell of literacy” or some other version of intellectual TEOTWAWKI. I submit the average comment thread resulting from virtually any original entry by the author of this site as example. I don’t “tweet” or have a Facebook whatever-it-is-one-does-there, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both often provide introduction to longer-form (not to mention more grammatically correct) extemporanious writing by their practioner’s at some point in their individual experience growth curve; certainly there is a lot of linkage between the differing formats.

    It’s all a matter of choosing to pursue the outcome you more desire from the circumstance you find, I suppose.

  11. With Wired and similar fodder, you have to put things in perspective. If you’re expecting great insights or good information, forget about it. Many of the “journalists” that work for Wired don’t know the first thing about proper research, especially when it comes to verifying sources.

    But, sometimes they do interesting stories that are very entertaining, if not entirely informative or insightful. Particularly the ones that are written to unfold like a story. It’s a guilty pleasure, like watching Bones or reading bad cyberpunk wannabe novels or something.

  12. David Hume once said that he would be as dumbwitted as his adversaries if he had read as many books as them. Perhaps there’s some truth in that being inundated with information, useful or not, stunts strong, precise thinking, and reduction in the ability to express thought effectively.

  13. Wired is a glossy magazine devoted to selling high-priced gadgets to yuppie 30-somethings. I read it, though I am neither, because it’s cheap (an effort to increase subscriptions) and because it has fewer pages than it used to (due to declining advertising), and it is amusing to find out what yuppie 30-somethings are interested in.

    I seriously doubt we can look at tweets and conclude that literacy is on the rise. Quantity does not make for quality. ESR is a reasonably good writer (by which I mean someone who can string correctly-spelled words into well-formed sentences; sentences into coherent paragraphs; paragraphs into essays that that have a start, a middle, an end, and a point, and open up an area of thought that hasn’t occurred to the rest of us.

    Good research would involve going to any university, and collecting papers. Then we’d know – we’d know if “I haz cheezeburgers” is indeed a literary classic. We’d know if anybody is still reading Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Bill Buckley.

    “… The author credits texting and twittering with encouraging haiku-like precision”. ??? LOL (as they say). Haiku is not precise; it is terse, and intentionally vague (“The moon rises over the temple. I gaze skyward. I stub my toe on a rock.”) And don’t expect anybody (though of course it’s done, and sometimes quite well) to take a 5-7-5-syllable pattern from a language in which each syllable is a word and use it in a language in which each word is polysyllabic. If you want precision, read a real-estate contract. Twittering removes any incentive to spell correctly, any incentive to employ the rules of grammar (which can certainly be broken, but only once they’ve been learned), and any incentive to “think before you type”.

    There’s clearly nothing wrong with thumbing your innermost thoughts to friends and associates. For some of them, it may be absolutely fascinating that you’re in the canned-goods section of Wal-Mart, trying to decide between the clarified yak butter and the imported Alsatian goose grease. On the other hand, if you’re completely lost trying to write a resume, a weekly status report, or a grant proposal, you’re not quite yet one of the truly literate.

    For a pinnacle of literary evolution (in this country at least), I give you —– rap.

  14. I am little late to comment on this, but I feel like I should:

    @Rich Rostrom: “But the volume of telegrams was fairly small. Most people sent one or two in their whole lives.”

    Even if we acknowledge that most people in the world didn’t use the telegraph regularly; using telegraphy was a daily habit for many people in the metropolitan area of London (even when communicating with someone a few miles away).

    I don’t know if Eric was aware of the book “The Victorian Internet” , but it seems like he was. And I’d like to state that the little knowledge I have about Victorian era London has nothing to do with that book, which I have not read.

    @Plato: I think Hume was just trying to be witty, and wasn’t even good at it. Believing everything you read can certainly be a problem; but that possibility shouldn’t deter anyone from obtaining the most information they can on a subject… before making their own minds about it.

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