Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life on (in?) the information superhighway

We hear lots about how texting ruins grammar, the Internet makes us dumber, the next generation is bound to be idiots. Or something like that. In the last couple of weeks, have encountered two articles making the opposite argument, that by writing more in a more public context, a larger percentage of the population is becoming comfortable with writing prose and with using it to make arguments and effect change.
  • The first looks at college Stanford student writing and finds that a huge percentage of it occurs outside of class assignments, meaning that this generation is writing more than any generation before them.
    Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

    But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—-assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
    This may or may not generalize to all levels of education (I suspect that Stanford undergrads are not very representative), but I think it's true that even the less "literate" are jumping in and expressing themselves, which has to be good for their flexibility of thought. Only time will tell.

  • The second article traces the tendency of the public to decry any new technology as spelling the end of civilization...
    I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.
    This author notes that many technological innovations have given more people access to the means of "publication" and gradually reduced the gatekeeper function of scribes, then publishers, etc., until anybody can be an "author" to some kind of audience.
    Opening up writing to new voices can’t be a bad thing. We’re seeing this spiral. The more people use technology, the more people communicate, the more people in power become concerned with how to control that use. There are two forces pushing against each other. ... [I]t’s similar to what happened when printing presses became a major means of communication or when radio and TV became major communication players. How do you license, how do you control what gets said on the air?
    It's also worth noting that he talks explicitly about kids outgrowing their use of emoticons and becoming (rather rigid) users of standard grammar and punctuation, thus dismissing one of the standard arguments made against all that texting and chat. Various other interesting bits there too.
Apologies to whoever referred me to these articles -- I sort of think one was from Follow Me Here and the other from Atrios, but that's just a guess...

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