On literacy

printing press

Jay Cross and Clark Quinn hosted a session this week on The Future of the Book:

The net has changed everything. Young people read screens, not paper. Plus, we’re all potential publishers now.

Publishing traditionally provided editorial, production, and marketing services. Today I can buy very rapid, very good, very low-priced editing from India. On-demand publishers will print as many (or as few) copies as you like. And publishers’ traditionally shoddy marketing is even more worthless in the days of online reputation and long-tail distribution.

The issue of literacy is a hot button topic and in my experience can be promoted for the wrong reasons and often without the data to back up the premises. I haven’t researched literacy in detail but I’m starting to keep some references, especially those that go against conventional wisdom.

Mark Federman introduced me to the idea that literacy is changing and we had better understand these changes, in Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read:

… the notion that our beloved literacy is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is as irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry – clearly not devoid of value, but equally no longer the structuring force of society.

Even The Economist, conservative as it is, questions the value of linear print literacy:

So, no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest and flunk their literacy tests. They are skilled in making sense not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

I have feet planted in both camps, as I enjoy reading books but also spend much time following hyperlinks and co-creating written conversations online. I’m not sure what the future holds, but we have to look at literacy from a scientific and not a romantic perspective. For example, literacy groups and educators should broaden their perspectives on the definition of literacy as 4 billion people connect to the Internet with their mobile, text-messaging, video-enabled devices.

3 Responses to “On literacy”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Harold: I’m like you, still reading lots of books but also lots of digital text too. I’m finding out about books differently, rather than no longer reading books. I’m currently reading The Art of Learning / Josh Waitzkin because someone else at LibraryThing.com had read it and has more books in his library in common with mine than any other subscriber. I’ve just added The Alphabet and the Goddess / Leonard Shlain to my reading pile. I’m expecting it to give me better sense of what came before literacy that will get revived.

    My take on McLuhan’s prediction of our moving from the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Global Village did not forecast the end of books. He foresaw the end of “print heads”, making sense of life experiences congruently with printing presses, typography and ink on paper. Now we give meaning to things in sync with electricity. Here’s a few of those changes:

    — 14,000 copies of book are all the same text and pictures -> 14,000 digitized blogs reveal different text, pictures, links, tags, etc (self expression, uniqueness, diversity)
    — printing presses create bestselling authors who define authority for everyone -> everyone reads differently and supports countless small presses, authors with cult followings, very popular authors without official credentials (miscellaneous viewpoints, long tail creatives, post modernism)
    — printed books take a long manufacturing process to deliver -> Amazon or Lulu print one book when it’s ordered from the PDF in their database (zero turnaround time, on demand, 24/7)

    We now expect life to be delivered instantaneously, matched to our unique preferences and with respect for the entire planet. Slow makes it useless, not more special or polished. “Factory made” means boring, derivative, lacking customization. “Hot off the press” means reviewed by editors, sponsored by advertisers, confined to cultural premises. “Mass media” means corporations are involved serving shareholders exclusively. “Bargain price” means somewhere in the world people suffered to cut the production costs.

    So I suspect we will continue reading books printed on 100% recycled paper, bought used or borrowed from libraries whenever possible and offered digitally as well as a few hard copies.

  2. mewcomm

    Interesting Post Harold. First time “responder” And coincidentally I just ordered an Amazon Kindle — Surely Mr. Haskins is a candidate for a Kindle!!!

    I read with interest your assertion that you have a foot in both camps. While I too am not immune to the seductive siren call of the net and it’s glittering information trails, I find myself reading books and rejecting the net where possible If only to defy the “Is Google Making us Stupid?” notion raised by Nick Carr earlier this summer.

    Here is my larger question. If indeed we move to this information garden and we are all bees flitting from one pollen cup to another, who will do the serious thinking in society? Who will deliver the next Polio Vaccine, The Cure for Alzheimer’s. Who will write the next great novel? Or conceive of new ideas?

    Does not serious disciplined intellectual pursuit need a less distracting environment than the net? Don’t true scientists have to sit and actually read the heavy subject matter of their chosen field to advance? Did my neighbor with a Phd from MIT in Aerospace Engineering (a real live “Rocket Scientist”) get his advanced degree while using Facebook?

    HELP me get my head just partially around this!!! Lest I go off the Deep end and buy Maggie Jackson’s new book, “Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age”!!!!

    mike whatley
    altadena, ca

  3. Harold Jarche

    The big challenge when an epoch-changing technology comes along is to find the right balance. Early industrial London was filled with poor factory workers who drowned their sorrows in cheap gin because they couldn’t handle the new stresses of industrial life. It took us a while to create new structures like public health & education and child labour laws to counter the effects of rampant industrialism. We’re still in the early stages of the Internet era but we only have industrial tools to address our issues. I think that we’ll see a lot more craziness before we seriously address how to live with most of us being interconnected and having all this information at our fingertips.

    Thanks for your first comment here, Mike.


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