What will happen to reading and writing in our time?
Could the doomsayers be right? Computers, they maintain, are destroying literacy. The signs — students' declining reading scores, the drop in leisure reading to just minutes a week, the fact that half the adult population reads no books in a year — are all pointing to the day when a literate American culture becomes a distant memory. By contrast, optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words. Will they carry the day?
Maybe neither. Let me suggest a third possibility: Literacy — or an ensemble of literacies — will continue to thrive, but in forms and formats we can't yet envision.
That's what has always happened as writing and reading have evolved over the ages. It was less than 100,000 years ago that our predecessors first made meaningful marks on surfaces, notating the phases of the moon or drawing animals on cave walls. Within the past 5,000 years, societies across the Near East's Fertile Crescent began to use systems of marks to record important trade exchanges as well as pivotal events in the present and the past. These marks gradually became less pictorial, and a decisive leap occurred when they began to capture certain sounds reliably: U kn red ths sntnz cuz Inglsh feechurs "graphic-phoneme correspondences."
A master of written Greek, Plato feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar side effects of "Googling"). But libraries made the world's knowledge available to anyone who could read. The 15th-century printing press disturbed those who wanted to protect and interpret the word of God, but the availability of Bibles in the vernacular allowed lay people to take control of their spiritual lives and, if historians are correct, encouraged entrepreneurship in commerce and innovation in science.
In the past 150 years, each new medium of communication — telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, the digital computer, the World Wide Web — has introduced its own peculiar mix of written, spoken and graphic languages and evoked a chaotic chorus of criticism and celebration. But of the changes in the media landscape over the past few centuries, those featuring digital media are potentially the most far-reaching.
Here's my take.
Once we ensured our basic survival, humans were freed to pursue other needs and desires, including the pleasures of communicating, forming friendships, convincing others of our point of view, exercising our imagination, enjoying a measure of privacy. Initially, we pursued these needs with our senses, our hands and our individual minds. Human and mechanical technologies to help us were at a premium. It's easy to see how the emergence of written languages represented a boon. The invention of the printing press and the emergence of readily available books, magazines and newspapers allowed untold millions to extend their circle, expand their minds and expound their pet ideas.
But now, at the start of the 21st century, there's a dizzying set of literacies available — written languages, graphic displays and notations. And there's an even broader array of media — analog, digital, electronic, hand-held, tangible and virtual — from which to pick and choose. There will inevitably be a sorting-out process.
I don't worry for a nanosecond that reading and writing will disappear. Even in the new digital media, it's essential to be able to read and write fluently and, if you want to capture people's attention, to write well. Of course, what it means to "write well" changes: Virginia Woolf didn't write the same way that Jane Austen did, and Arianna Huffington's blog won't be confused with Walter Lippmann. But the imaginative spheres and real-world needs those written words address remain.
I also question the predicted disappearance of the material book. When they wanted to influence opinions, both the computer giant Bill Gates and the media visionary Nicholas Negroponte wrote books (the latter in spite of his assertion that the material book was becoming anachronistic).
Two aspects of the traditional book may be in jeopardy, however. One is the author's capacity to lay out a complex argument, which requires the reader to study and reread, following a circuitous course of reasoning. The Web's speedy browsing may make it difficult for digital natives to master Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (not that it was ever easy).
The other is the book's special genius for allowing readers to enter a private world for hours or even days at a time. Many of us enjoyed long summer days or solitary train rides when we first discovered an author who spoke directly to us. Nowadays, as clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle has pointed out, young people seem to have a compulsion to stay in touch with one another all the time. If this lust for 24/7 online networking continues, one of the dividends of book reading may fade away. The wealth of different literacies and the ease of moving among them — on an iPhone, for example — may undermine the once-hallowed status of books.
But whatever our digital future brings, we need to overcome the perils of dualistic thinking, the notion that what lies ahead is either a utopia or a dystopia. We need to be able to triangulate: to bear in mind our needs and desires, the media as they once were and currently are, and the media as they're continually transforming.
It's not easy to do. But maybe there's a technology, just waiting to be invented, that will help us acquire this invaluable cognitive power.
Howard Gardner teaches cognitive psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is directing a study of the ethical dimensions of the new digital media.