Fearing Digital Literacy September 8, 2008Posted by Eyal Sivan in Self.
Tags: atlantic, brin, britannica, carr, edge, google, kelly, literacy, mcluhan, new york times, shirky
The July/August 2008 edition of the Atlantic magazine featured a very provocative cover story. Using the infamous colour scheme of the world’s most popular search engine, the headline asks: Is Google Making Us Stoopid? The article, written by IT pundit Nicholas Carr, argues that yes, in a sense, the Internet is making us stupid. The truth is, he’s just plain scared.
In the article, Carr clearly demonstrates an intimate and well-researched understanding of technology and media, and his conclusion is clear. The Internet, he claims, is “chipping away our capacity for concentration and contemplation,” serving to “scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.” To be fair, he acknowledges that he may be wrong, stating that “you should be skeptical of [his] skepticism;” that we may be on the cusp of a “golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.”
After its publication, the article triggered a veritable barrage of opinions from amateurs and experts alike (mostly at Edge.org and the Britannica Blog). Some of the heavyweights agreed with Carr’s position, while others disagreed, all with varying degrees of passion, and all with appropriate eloquence and regard.
Summarizing and responding to each position would take far too long, so here is my analysis in the form of a simple diagram:
Please note that the above is a glib interpretation of the authors’ positions, and in no way mathematical, or accurately representative of their whole arguments. It is intended as a general (and hopefully humorous) summary. If anyone takes issue with their positioning, I would be happy to move them. The point is that the argument has been generally framed in terms of extremes.
With a nod to Carr’s article, the New York Times joined the fray on July 27 with an impressively neutral piece entitled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? Early on, it clearly defines the extremes: critics of reading online say it “diminishes literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books;” while proponents say “the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount.”
The article goes on to mention international assessment tests for gauging children’s digital literacy, a fascinating term. Really, that’s what much of the debate seems to be about: whether digital literacy is a bad thing, eroding our ability to sustain deep thought, or a good thing, re-wiring our brains for the digital world ahead.
This post is not intended to argue for one side over the other, but to examine the heated and sometimes surprisingly fearful nature of the debate itself.
In searching for the aforementioned New York Times article, I accidentally came across another article that made a similar point, with one big difference: it was published well over one hundred years ago, on December 17, 1881. The following is a long quote (made possible by the outstanding archive facility at nytimes.com):
“It has been asserted that everybody nowadays is too much given to newspaper reading, and that there is imminent danger that book reading will fall into disuse… Still, book-making increases and book-sellers thrive. At the same time, and with greater rapidity than the number of book-buyers increases, the number of newspaper readers is multiplied. With education the newspaper reader demands constantly improving journals of information – fuller details about Governments, men and things – and with greater accuracy in detail than ever before. In answer to this demand the newspaper publisher must strain every nerve to supply the readers of his newspaper with the amplest and most trustworthy information obtainable, and that not only about events, but about the discoveries of scientific men, the results of exploration, the most recent thought in philosophy, the latest tendencies to Church and State, and even the argument in the latest opera or the cream of the latest novel.”
Now re-read the above paragraph, but replace newspaper with blog. What you’ll find is an almost perfect reconstruction of today’s best arguments in defense of digital literacy. Frankly, its disappointing that such self-evident truths need to be proven over and over again, that we are seemingly so incapable of learning from our past. Yet the same old and obvious arguments ensue.
Some of the arguments centre around absolute definitions of good reading and bad reading, but even elementary philosophy tells us this is a dead-end. Tolstoy may be wonderful for some (like Larry Sanger) and terribly boring for others (like Clay Shirky). The heart of the matter is that there is no one right answer. Tolstoy is not always great, and he is not always boring. Like all art (some would say like all knowledge), what Tolstoy is or isn’t is in the eye of the beholder, it’s subjective. If you prefer RSS feeds to War and Peace, go to it.
Other criticisms have to do with the immaturity of the tools, but this is simply a matter of time. Prior to blogs, wikis and podcasts (which was not so long ago), the Internet was not even especially good at engendering opinion, something even Carr’s supporters admit it excels at today. Eventually and inevitably, there will be ways to “let the pearls rise and the worst of the noxious toxins go away,” as David Brin desires in his excellent response.
There is no question that the Internet is changing how we think, but it is myopic in the extreme to label the result as stupidity. It also betrays an implicit fear of digital literacy.
Fear of new media is not unique to this age. Socrates feared the written word. Religious leaders feared the printing press. As the above quote demonstrates, literati of the day feared the newspaper. Today, the film, television, radio and music industries openly quake in the shadow of the Internet. From the original Luddites to the Unabomber, new technologies have often bred fear.
Some would say that the dissidents were right, that they were prescient in their warnings, as many of the technologies they feared have led to stratification, inequality, corruption and death. In every case, however, even with the blood on the wall, there was no turning back. Reverting, or even just stopping technological progress is contrary to our evolutionary, temporal nature. Technology marches forward because we march forward.
The concern should not be about technology per se, but about the damage it often causes. In my opinion, much of the suffering brought about by new technologies may well have been avoided if there had been more concerted and public efforts to understand its implications. These efforts must first and foremost work from the premise that there is no going back. As soon as one says, “No! We were better off without it, ” that’s just plain fear.
One answer to this perspective comes from Marshall McLuhan’s seminal Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964:
“Literate man is not only numb and vague in the presence of file or photo, but he intensifies his ineptness by a defensive arrogance and condescension to ‘pop kulch’ and ‘mass entertainment.’ It was in this spirit of bulldog opacity that the Scholastic philosophers failed to meet the challenge of the printed book in the sixteenth century. The vested interest of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been bypassed and engulfed by new media.”
New media subsumes the old. It does not exist beside the old media, like a second option. It wraps around the old media, enveloping it, so that the new can do everything the old could do, but more. As a result, we tend to cast new media in roles we understand, so the Internet becomes a telephone and a radio and a television and of course, a book. The new media is always capable of much more than fulfilling these old roles. The problem lies in that we have no conception of what this more could possibly be, as we have no context for it yet.
Furthermore, this shift is inevitable. Technology does not go backwards, or as Clay Shirky puts it in his response: “the one strategy pretty much guaranteed not to improve anything is hoping that we’ll somehow turn the clock back. This will fail, while neither resuscitating the past nor improving the future.”
I think this inevitability scares some people. It is difficult for them to accept the validity of digital literacy, let alone imagining that it could completely subsume our immortal love of the written word. In order to deal with this fear, they hide behind McLuhan’s “bulldog opacity,” and trumpet the achievements of days long past, yearning for simpler times while simultaneously riding the current of their age.
The debate is not about smart versus stupid, or contemplative versus scattered, or deep versus shallow, or long-form versus short-form, or screen versus page. It is about us conceding that there is new way on the horizon, which is neither better nor worse, but new. This new way threatens the old way, a way which we may know and understand, which allows us to form nicely-bounded definitions of stupid and smart, but a way which must evolve all the same.
The diagram below illustrates this point. As time moves forward and technology develops, what the two end-points represent will change, and we most certainly can and should direct that change, but the battle between the familiar and the unfamiliar is never-ending:
Time is against us, always and unyielding. We can either turn our backs and pretend this new way isn’t coming, or we can face it head on and try and understand what it means for us, what it says about us.
Deep contemplative thinking is not necessarily the absolute best way to think. Nor is thin-slicing an absolute good. But the former is a well worn path, with many established and revered landmarks, while the latter is wild jungle waiting to be explored.
We cannot afford to be afraid, for it is that very fear that will lead to the dumbing-down of society for which all sides share concern. Google may or may not make you stupid by today’s definition, but not Googling will almost definitely make you stupid by tomorrow’s definition.
“We are about to make the next big switch. Billions of people on earth will stampede to join. Something will certainly be lost. It would serve us all better if that lost was better defined, and it was paired with a better defined sense of what we gain.”
Fear of the unknown is a peculiar but common condition. We have all been in some situation facing the precipice at the edge of the familiar, hearts beating faster, mouths dry. We experience this fear as a society too: fear of terrorism, fear of immigration, fear of gay marriage. All these can induce fear because they represent the great unknown. The Internet is no exception.
Faced with such a challenge, it must be remembered that this is neither the first nor the last time our global culture will suffer from the peculiar plight that is the fear of the unknown. Although the context is very different, the immortal words of Franklin Roosevelt seem strangely fitting:
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
It is grossly unfair to compare the cultural artifacts of the written word, which has ruled us for millenia, to the cultural artifacts of the digital world, which has existed for barely the blink of an eye.
Given time, digital literacy will give us so much more than the written word ever has, or ever could, for better or worse and whether you like it or not. We must learn to confront our fear, and convert retreat into advance.
Our future should not be shaped by the preservation of the old, but by the discovery of the new. Today, change is ever upon us. Rather than driving into the future using only our rearview mirror, as McLuhan observed, we should embrace our new tools, and strive to understand them as best we can, for the betterment of all of us and each one of us.