The Future Literacy
Therefore, I told my students that: That it is like having no time to read at all, an act, or the lack of it, that may condemn them to ignorance. Then the truth came out, slowly but inevitably, everyone in the class reflecting and confessing that it is not that they don't have the time, but book-reading has been squeezed out of their life as the Internet has taken over. They read online, which is reassuring for me as a teacher to know, but still painful as a book-reader. We launched into a discussion about relative merits of Internet reading thereafter, the discontinuous culture of Internet reading versus the patient pursuit of books, the digital versus the intensely physical, musty smell and all, experience of reading. There were clearly two sides of the debate, a muted disbelief that I am even trying to defend book-reading: It was cast to be one of those age versus youth, old versus new, debates, where the new ideas must eventually win.
But, indeed, I am not denouncing Internet: I am a old digital hand, having fallen in love with Internet before the web was born. Indeed, I did not read on the Internet then - that is precisely my point - I connected with people. For me, coming from those bulletin boards, Internet was a live experience, connected, noisy and full of people, not a solitary one to disconnect and to read. I came to blog writing almost naturally thereafter: Internet was a place to talk, to have a conversation. Then, when it was still a green screen with blinking text, Internet sat neatly with my various other habits, talking to people, writing by hand, book reading, watching Star Trek on Television etc. I am no one to tell people to digitally disconnect, as I can't. But, I felt, telling me that reading on the Internet is squeezing everything else out is like being able to speak, but not able to read, is one thing consuming the other to nothingness, an intellectual poverty rather than enlightenment.
We must labour on this point further. Socrates denounced writing, because he thought mental faculties needed to remember and argue would diminish as a consequence. This is cited as a classic (indeed, classical) example of fear of the new media, but there is a somewhat broader point (as with everything Socrates ever said or did). The new media shouldn't impoverish us, not replace our old literacy but to add to that. Take for example the great education innovator Jan Comenius, who used the great innovation of his age, printing press, to the pressing education problem of costs of teaching, and came up with textbooks, which revolutionised teaching but eventually undermined other skills, of remembering and understanding the classical literature, and resulted in Victorian classrooms. This is one example at hand where the new media replacing the old impoverish us, rather than adding on to it, something that Socrates so presciently observed.
We may be time-poor, but this is my point: Internet represents a different opportunity, that of sharing and connecting, and must be treated as such. I am greatly enthused by the experiments in social reading, where it enables reading together, but not of interactive texts, where the voice of commerce (what else to expect) can interrupt the one on one conversation between the book and its readers. I am an enthusiast of new media skills and would go as far as possible to acquire it, and writing this post on my laptop plugged on to the wi-fi at Waterstones, I celebrate it too: But, may this not be at the expense of what we already have, a great ability to transport our voices over time, as represented in the frozen form of books, the ability to read deeply and without distraction, and imagine, without being told what to think by the ubiquitous voice of the salesman who must, and always do, intrude whenever we drop our guards.