Digital Media as a Corrupting Force?

4 08 2008

For some time I’ve been meaning to blog about an article that ran in the July 27th issue of the New York Times entitled, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” Much of the it focused on a presume problematic dichotomy between print media such as books on the one hand and digital media on the other, which includes “cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds.”

Apparently, there is a debate raging amoung certain corners of academia how or whether to integrate digital media into school curriculums, including whether or not there should be any testing of it. At any rate, the interesting part of all is the assumption that sustained deliberative thinking is not only more likely to take place in reading books for long periods of time rather than prolonged engagement with digital media, but that the latter had almost nothing thought provoking to offer.

To support this view, many cite some sobering statistics about the declining numbers of teens who say they read books for fun and implied that the internet usage is to blame. Of course, before educators blamed the internet, they blamed video games, and before they blamed video games they blamed television.

At any rate, even the august Pulitzer prizing biographer David McCullough in a recent commencement address chimed in when he said:

Learning is not be found on a printout. Its not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books. And from teachers, the more learned and empathetic the better. And from concentrated work.

Of course, few would deny the value of reading great books and they uncommon wisdom they impart, but there seems to be no recognition of how a piece of art, the moving image, or music, or a compelling combination of them could also do the same. It seems as if widespread internet usage has inspired a backlash among many people to endorse a more conservative approach to intellectual development and somehow sees anti-intellectualism and irrationalism at the very heart of digital media.

Think thats too harsh? Consider Susan Jacoby. In a Feburary WaPo op-ed she said:

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

Who knew digital media was such an irresistible and corrupting force?

Fortunately, not even everyone agrees. Some more sober thinking people such as Howard Gardner have adopted the long view on all of this.

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 human 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.”

I wonder if that means the digital future will lead us back to a much richer version of our pictorial past.




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