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Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Sun Jan 27 01:15:34 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Is the internet killing literacy, or pumping new life into it?

Every year there’s a sky-is-falling warning about the death of  
literacy in America. A 2007 poll found that 27% of American adults  
hadn’t read a book in a year. More recently, Caleb Crain, writing in  
the New Yorker, cites a worldwide drop-off in reading on the order of  
the shrinking of the polar ice caps. Crain documents a 50% decline in  
American newspaper readership since 1970 and flat book sales, all of  
which foreshadow a world where fewer readers means fewer thinkers,  
fewer voters, and far less objectivity.

One computer visionary thinks this growing illiteracy is actually  
good for business: Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs rejected a suggestion  
that Amazon’s hot new e-book reader, the oddly-named Kindle, which  
sold out the day it went on sale, might eat into the iPod’s market,  
because – according to Jobs – 40% of Americans don’t read books, and  
for him fewer readers apparently equals more listeners and  
viewers. . . .

Crain even cites a Michigan State University study showing that  
children can improve their reading by going online for as little as  
half an hour a day, whether they surf to gather information or  
they’re just chatting with friends. He adds this shocker, that “even  
visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance,”  
though the study he cites makes no such claim. But Crain also warns  
that the “synergies” between surfing and reading will disappear as  
the popularity of YouTube moves the web away from text toward  
television. . .

Predictors of the end of literacy like Crain, who calls his essay  
“The Twilight of the Book,” acknowledge that many computer activities  
involve text, but they complain that computer literacy isn’t really  
literacy, that email or IM are simply ways to make text approximate  
speech, producing a kind of “secondary orality” – a term made popular  
by Walter Ong that indicates a kind of modern move to recapture  
ancient oral culture – something almost tribal, rather than truly  
literate behavior (if taken to its extreme, such a view applied to  
drama, a literary art devoted to the approximation of speech, could  
push Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill into the world of soap opera). . . .

read the rest on The Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English                                   	
University of Illinois	

608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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