Interesting article in the Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich. "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? Is the Internet the enemy of reading, or has it created a new kind of reading, one that society should not discount?" Two people have already e-mailed it to me and it is one of the NYT's most e-mailed articles at the moment.
It describes the latest round of a debate that goes all the way back to Plato's Phaedrus. What is the impact of a new technology on how we learn and share information and knowledge? In Plato's case he was concerned, amongst other things, about the impact of literacy on a highly valued oral tradition. Now we are concerned about the impact of the web on literacy. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.
I think it is still important to learn to read, as Rich puts it, texts with "a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision." It is not so much the predetermined beginning, middle, and end that I value but the sustained concentration on another's vision and argument. Our attention spans and our willingness to engage with someone else's ideas for a sustained period seem to be shrinking. Reading online encourages us to take (an albeit false) sense of control and it also encourages to read in smaller chunks. Reading on the web is focused on self. We are able to construct narratives and arguments that satisfy us from many sources, rather than being forced to confront another author's vision.
What the web is good for though, amongst other things, is rewarding us for evaluating sources, and enabling us to evaluate arguments, authors, sources, etc. quickly.
So I think we need to learn to do both, just as memorizing a poem is also still a useful skill and accomplishment.
Just as Plato couldn't stop the shift from orality to literacy, we will not stop this shift from print to digital. How we store, learn, and share information and knowledge will change with this shift. We need to find ways to separate the elements and techniques of print culture that will be of continuing value from the simply familiar and comfortable. At the same time we have to consciously encourage the valuable elements and techniques of our evolving digital culture. Just as Cassiodorus did not sit back and watch the classical Roman culture of the scroll fade away during a period of massive economic and societal change, but worked to bring what he valued into the new technology of the codex and nascent medieval world and by doing so changed that future.
One thing struck me in the article, Nadia's mother worked hard to encourage her daughter to read but does not read much herself. That may be the key.