In a recent rant, entitled Neo-Illiteracy, Joe Harris launches a full blown knee-jerk assault on the degeneration of the cultural forms that he prizes so much. Here is a sample:
- When the hell did Dickens or Hemingway ever write in pidgin English? As a conscientious literary mind, I gasped in horror upon cracking the “LOL” code. Freshly evolved gray matter reverts to ooze. Mark Twain wants to see us all in Hell. There are neither “Xs” nor “Os” in “hugs and kisses.” Both forms of human contact are too much to bear, yet not enough to get me there. How does an intellectual pig write, “go die somewhere.”
He is, of course, alluring to the simplification that emerged as part of the text messaging phenomenon. But this contemporary critique of modern language is not uncommon, nor is it new. People were — and still are — apt to blame television for people getting stupider, just as Plato had Socrates lament that literacy would limit our mental faculties.
Contrary to this vision of despair, however, there is a great deal of potential in this generation of network dwellers. What we now see emerging is not the end of civilization, but the triumph of the new literary that is by and for the people. A writing that develops form the ground up without the need to be imposed from above. A skill that children feel compelled to learn because they see it in constant use.
For instance, my nephew, who is only in 4th grade approaches the challenge of reading with enthusiasm because he knows that I won't help him to surf the net for whatever it is he wants – be it games, cheat codes or funny pictures. He understands from observation that knowing how to read is crucial, because it is so necessary to getting anything done.
Immersed in writing more than any previous generation; with text messages, forums, chat, and multiplayer video games, rudimentary reading and writing is becoming the minimum standard for having fun and engaging with friends. Such continuous exposure and practice can only make for better readers and writers.
And yet there is no shortage of reductionist pessimists who seem to believe that such competence will remain at the entry level. To quote Harris again:
- We use money and technology when brainpower trumps them both. Thought is bypassed with acronyms and teenage girl-esque slang. Even a dog's bark is a language. Is alpha grunting the next hot fashion?
Contrary to the hyperbole, English has a long and colourful history of incorporating slang and onomatopoeia. In fact, the Macquarie Dictionary's latest Word of the Year is 'Toxic Debt', which just goes to show how language adapts to serve its context. The emphasis on shorthand in chat and messaging, which is so often decried, neglects the fact that the longer and deeper craft of traditional letter writing was necessitated by an infrequent postal service.
Far from the allegations that modern technology shall bring about a breakdown and disintegration of grammatical coherence; the truth is a bit more subtle. After all, in a literacy centered world the inability to write coherently is equivalent to having a speech impediment and tends to produce the same kind of alienation. And this social pressure doesn't just come from senior netizens like myself – I have also seen teenagers apply it to their friends on a regular basis.
More to the point, chat and SMS are not the only way that young people express themselves. Online forums and sites like BlogCritics provide young writers like myself an opportunity to be read and responded to without having to rely on the sugarcoating of our friends, family or neighbors. In the former especially, there are presently multitudes of young people honing their literary craft by their own volition. And with more time for literary practice than schools could ever provide, we may see a renaissance-like boom in the next 10-20 years.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in in his wonderful new book Outliers, what makes for greatness is not innate talent but the availability of time to practice. He even puts a number on it – 10,000 hours, which holds true for musicians, chess masters and even computer programmers. Heck, William Shakespeare and Amadeus Mozart were lucky to have grown up in such close proximity to their mediums. The children of today have been empowered to learn their craft from the bottom up, with exposure and assistance from those at many different stages of development.
While the old literacy was learned through rehearsing the rules that society “agreed” upon; the new literacy is built upon the mutual understanding of participants. It will diversify in its idioms and dialects and require an open and adaptive mind. Hence, it is little wonder that it poses a threat to those who like their traditional codes and conventions. The flux of new literacy demands an attentiveness and flexibility that was once reserved for tribal diplomats.
Of course, this is not to neglect the role of education but teaching must be valued in its proper place. If an isolated community of deaf children can build their own language of signs and symbols in spite of their teachers, then perhaps the popular emphasis on traditional correctness is misguided.
What really matters is that young people learn how to communicate effectively with those that matter. Not whether you understand the jargon yourself.