::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Essay: The Twilight of Reading

Reading and Writing Are Under Attack By Technology That Enables Verbal Communication to Thrive

“There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”

- Bertrand Russell

It is always assumed that reading and writing are basic skills necessary for success in business, academics, and in life. This is, of course, because written language has been the backbone of societal communication for more than a thousand years.

But will this always
be true? Have we already entered the twilight of written communications? Is reading doomed to extinction?

After all, written language is a substitute for verbal communication. While children instinctively learn spoken languages – the same is not true for written languages. Writing and reading are manmade inventions and must be learned.

So what happens if no one wants to learn them anymore?

Imagine a world where writing and reading have become unnecessary. All information is conveyed through verbal communication – through video or audio feeds (made possible by technology and the internet). For example, computers would communicate driving instructions and road rules directly to drivers making “traffic signs” pointless. Books, novels, manuals, recipes, bills, letters, etc. are replaced with video and audio files as thin as paper that speak to users (and even answer questions through voice recognition software).

In this world when a consumer buys a new HD-TV at Best Buy, the box the television arrives in has a built in video display that shows the buyer how to set-it up (with easy to follow demonstrations – that can even go in slo-mo). The box will answer simple questions and for more complicated problems it will quickly hook up to the Internet for more comprehensive video and audio capabilities.

How about credit card bills that arrive on paper and are actually touch screen computers? The “paper” will tell the recipient how much they owe, balance information, offers for new products and services, and even allow them to ask questions and perform simple commands – like bill payment and change of address.

This is a world where speech becomes the primary form of communication and super smart portal devices (hello, iPhone) become the main tools in the exchange of ideas. When products – when things – can freely and intelligently interact with people, why will written communication be necessary?

In this world, writing and reading will go the way of Latin – the sole providence of intellectuals and academics.


Not if you consider the sorry state of literacy in our modern world. Computers and TV screens have already encroached on writing and reading. Literacy rates in the United States have been in fast decline for more than a decade. Consider the evidence:

  • The National Assessment of Adult Literary found a steep drop in reading proficiency among college graduates during the 1990s. In 1992, 40 percent of college graduates scored “proficient” in literary, but one year later in 1993, the number dropped by 9 percent (to 31 percent).
  • A 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that more than half of all U.S. adults don’t read any literature. The study also found that from 1982 to 2002 more than 20 million people stopped reading books for pleasure.
  • A follow-up to the NEA report in 2007 found that 15-24 year olds watched TV on average two hours a day, but read less than 7 minutes per day. The report also found reading proficiency in that same age group fell 20 percent between 1992 and 2003.

Keep in mind that this decline is mostly voluntary. The United States has already reached the point where people don’t want to read for pleasure anymore. Video games have replaced comic books. Movies have replaced novels. The Internet has replaced reference books.

Reading and writing have been pushed out of households and into offices – but once email is replaced with speech mail and presentations become video conversations – reading and writing will begin to lose their hold on that venue as well. Hasn’t Powerpoint presentations already eroded thoughtful written discourse in favor of bullet points?

Once alternatives to reading and writing – made possible by the web and technology – become readily available, why won’t people completely abandon written language and return to the truest and easiest form of communication: verbal communication?

Nothing lasts forever. Just ask struggling book publishers. In a country with more than 300 million people – a bestseller is now considered a book that sells about 100,000 copies.

Is literacy standing on thin ice? Have we entered into the twilight years of reading and writing?

It’s scary to think so.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
A world without reading? I'm not quite sure that written language would ever go away, but your essay is is an intriguing mind puzzler...

Blogger Uncle Gustav said...
My niece has been accepted to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University. The email she sent to announce this wonderful news was an assault — she’s part of that collective mindset that believes it’s OK to invent ‘shit’ (re: spelling and syntax) as you go along. The Johns Hopkins brain trust apparently doesn’t think she needs to repeat her third- and fourth-grade English. When I wrote her with my concerns, all she said was “WTF?”

Blogger GFS3 said...
Now that's a doctor I want reading my medical charts.

I taught an internal business writing class at my last company for the entry level employees. There were 12 people in the last class -- all under 25. As part of the presentation, I put up great openings of classic novels.

The first one: "Call me Ishmael."

It's only one of the most famous opening sentences in literature and even if you haven't read "Moby-Dick" you'd think you'd have run across it someplace.

Yet not one student could identify the source -- even after I told them it was from a book written by Herman Melville. All I got were blank stares.

Reading will always be here - but the publishing industry is in a state of flux and there will have to be some changes to the current system. Bring back slimmer, fast reads is what I say.

Blogger GFS3 said...
There's little doubt that publishing -- from books to newspapers -- is trying to find a new model in the age of the Internet.

I'm not convinced that reading will always be with us. It will take a looooong time for it to disappear, but I could see the circumstance where it could become unnecessary.

Interesting to think about anyway.

Blogger Madam Miaow said...
Scary. Everything's supposed to be visceral. Nothing's cerebral. In terms of social engineering I guess this makes us easier to manipulate.


Blogger J. A. M. said...
I agree with the general tone of your article, but I can't foresee writing ever going the way of the dodo. Unless the cost of thin and flexible plastic screens, speakers, batteries, memory and any other prerequisite hardware falls below the price of cardboard and ink, I doubt you'll see the trend of built-in instruction manuals catching on. It might work for a TV, where you already have the prerequisites and just need to add the directions. But, even then, Grandma's probably still going to need some help setting it up, and I guarantee you'll still be putting your Ikea table together with a folded piece of paper in your hand. The idea of supplemental video instruction available over the net is much more feasible in my opinion, but I don't think it will replace the norm.

As for bills, why would a company bother to spend the resources to physically deliver an advanced touch screen computer when they can send me an email invoice with a Paypal link and the option to automatically deduct my bill from my checking account every month?

When a company's VP sends out a confusing video memo, the marketing associate who doesn't understand better not reply "Yo, WTF dawg?" if he values his job. You seem to interposing? correlating? the degradation of writing and literacy with the degradation of verbal language/communications in your argument. They're interrelated, sure, but that doesn't mean everyone will talk like they text message.

Some things will change in time, no doubt, but writing has been around for so long it's hard to imagine a world without it. Maybe it means I'll be reading the Encyclopedia Britannica online, but nobody's going to take the time and effort to put it into audio/visual media. And if we do shift more towards verbal communications, so what? Poe's The Raven is great, but hearing Rathbone read it is just as good. The Simpsons version... maybe not.

The trend of dropping literacy scores is rather depressing, possibly more so because I see it around me everyday. As a 22 year old college student, I see kids that can't keep up with basic textbooks, and it's hard to fathom why. As a political science student, I've read Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, etc. and I can understand struggling to read in an archaic style of writing with sometimes peculiar or outdated words and definitions, but some people can hardly make it through something like Call of the Wild and that's just rather sad. I read The Hobbit and the whole Tolkien Trilogy in roughly a week. When I was 11.

In regards to GFS3's comment, I'm not surprised that no one recognized the quote or Melville's name. The opening quote of the article comes to mind. I read the Tolkien books because they took me to a place I could hardly have imagined. I was there. I was the characters. It didn't matter that they were supposed to be older than me, or taller, or a different race. I was utterly entranced, in a way that no movie has ever replicated. While I've never read Moby-Dick, other Romantic authors like Hawthorne have not had the same effect on me, nor do I have reason to believe that Melville would. It's not likely to be taught in schools either, where I might be forced to read it, and I probably wouldn't relate to its themes; they're too far gone in the past to have a direct relation to my life here and now. Ultimately, for me at least, the only motivation to read it would be to say that I had read it.

Blogger Carl said...
It would be devastating if all things reading and writing were annihilated. There are so many things in this world that depend on them. For example, like in the traffic signs you mentioned, drivers wouldn't find them necessary anymore, right? But what are those signs made of? Paint, steel strapping, metal poles, steel strapping seals, etc. Those are very essential materials. Who made them? Factory workers. They are a huge part of our society. In a nutshell, there would be a chain reaction.

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