Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reading and Writing Will Go... Wonderful! 2

Are reading and writing essential to culture?  Can we live without them as we now know them?
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No matter whether or not you believe reading and writing are important, or whether or not you believe it will eventually go away, you must admit that it is strange that early on in the history of printed books people seemed to be much more against reading and the written language than now. 

While many may argue that all new technologies are received that way; please keep in mind that for at least 200-300 years after the printing press, the view of the mass public towards books did not really change. People realized their importance, but also the vast amounts of limitations as well. Why is this? Why would we become more attached to a technology the older it gets? And YES, reading and writing IS technology. As Kevin Kelly points out,
We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry, and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as a technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions. A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.   We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully.
Technology is anything and everything that did not exist before humans created it. So reading and writing are technologies. And for some inexplicable reason, we seem to have this undying, ever growing love affair with them that we do not have with other technologies. When electric lights came out we didn’t hold on to using candles. Yes we may use them for a more romantic mood, or when the electricity goes out; but we are not forcing our kids to read and write by candlelight in school. When cars came out we didn’t keep riding bikes as our primary mode of transportation. Why is it that with all our new video technology, people still insist that reading and writing are crucial?

Could it be that people associate reading and writing with intelligence? This definitely seems to be the main reason why. That would explain why schools spend so much more time teaching kids how to read and write, more than just about anything else. However, this is a huge mistake. After all, 
...well into modern times the artisans and craftsmen who helped advance the technology, albeit slowly, of everything from writing implements to ships were not educated and 'probably often illiterate'” (Petroski, loc. 239). 
Petroski goes on to say later on,
Innovation, ingenuity, and inventiveness have always existed, as witnessed by the technological advances of the oldest civilizations and by the machines and engines described by such ancient writers as Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria, and later in drawings of Leonardo, but a systematic approach to engineering, uniting craft and science to develop artifacts from dreams, took centuries to develop” (loc. 1308).
This is an extremely accurate statement and observation. Certainly one cannot hold to the view that our particular industrial revolution definition of "literacy" is the only proper one.  In ancient times, there could have been other definitions.  Indeed, even today scholars cannot agree on one universal definition.  William Harris in his classic work, Ancient Literacy states,
Just as there is obscurity in the modern terminology of literacy, so there was in the ancient terminology.  Like the word illiterate, Greek agrammatos and Latin illiteratus seem to veer between the meanings "uncultured" and 'incapable of reading and writing."  Even the expressions litteratas (ne) scire, "(not) to know letters," may refer to lack of culture rather than to illiteracy in the narro sense.  In documentary contexts all Greek and Latin expressions concerning "knowing letters" refer to literacy in the narrow sense, but in literary contexts there is ambiguity by the time of Plato and Xenophon., and it continues into late antiquity.  Aristotle even uses the word agrammatos about animals, to mean "unable to utter articulate sounds."  Latin Illiteratus must originally have meant "illiterate" in a narrow sense, with literatus meaning the converse - an to it happens that the younger Seneca says something close to this.  But such primitive clarity, if it ever existed, may already have been lost by the second century, B.C., and by Cicero;s time literatus commonly meant "cultivated," and illiteratus could mean "lacking in culture."  Even when it is clear that an ancient literary text is referring to basic literacy and not to some higher level of education, it is very seldom clear how much knowledge a person needed to qualify as "knowing letters."
The question of how literate were ancient societies is still being debated among scholars.  Again Harris explains,
In some cultures non-writing readers, those possessed of one skill but not the other, have made up a broad stratum.  To take a non-modern example, a recent book seems to maintain that in medieval England reading ability and writing ability were quite independent of each other.  We shall certainly have to be in guard for the possibility that the difference between reading and writing levels was actually very great amont the Greeks and Romans.  There is, however, no special reason to think that those who could truly read and truly not writer were numerous.
Obviously, intelligence is not dependent on knowing how to read and write. What people seem to forget is that the reason reading and writing got attached to the idea of intelligence is because hundreds of years ago the people who knew how to read and write were the ones who were the best informed. This is because the way a person got information since the renaissance was from reading books and newspapers. 


However, today a person can be completely illiterate and yet still very well informed from watching television, listening to radio, and accessing videos on the Internet. If you doubt this, then we challenge you to think of something you want to learn how to do, that you cannot find on YouTube. In the last year alone we have used YouTube to learn software like Microsoft Excel, Dreamweaver, changing brake pads on a car, teaching middle school children foreshadowing, giving haircuts, etc. Try learning any of things as well from reading a book.

The Evolution of Reading & Writing 
We pause from our argument to remind our readers that we are not arguing that reading and writing are not important at all, at this present time. We are not saying that people should no longer bother learning how to read and write. All we are saying are two things.

First, that, as Eisenstein states, "Learning to read is different, moreover, from learning by reading” (38). We are not stating that people should no longer learn how to read and write; all we are saying is that schools need to stop focusing so much on it and begin focusing more on other skills that are as, or more important to the success of students, for example, like how to navigate the Internet to find important information and how to determine if a website is reliable. And even more importantly, schools need to stop demanding that students learn by reading. What difference does it make how a student learns a particular skill, as long as it is learned? Even the traditional literary techniques and characteristics of narratives that are taught in reading classes across the country can be taught to students without actually reading a book.
Whatever damage has been done to youthful reading habits, old literary themes continue to be amplified by script writers and song writers over air waves even now. (Eisenstein, 119)
If we want a class to learn what the rising action of a story is, why do we have to teach it to them while they are reading a book? Why can’t we teach it to them while showing them a movie? Certainly, the class will pay closer attention to the lesson, will probably even remember it better, and learn the skill faster than if they learned it through reading. And yet, if we were to walk by a classroom and see a teacher showing a movie, the assumption is that the teacher is being lazy and the class is not learning anything. Why is this? Is a movie’s scriptwriter any less talented than a book’s author? Are scriptwriters held to lower standards than authors?

The second thing we are arguing is that eventually, at some point (it may be 50 years from now, it may be 500 years from now) reading and writing will no longer be important at all! They will however, never completely die out. A few people will always know how to read and write. After all, as Kevin Kelly argues, there is no technology that has ever become completely extinct, even ones that are useless to us for survival.
As utilitarian technologies age, they tend to become recreational. Witness sailboats, open convertible cars, fountain pens, and fireplaces. Who would have guessed anyone would burn candles when light bulbs are so cheap? But burning candles is now a mark of luxuriant uselessness. Some of our hardest-working technology today will achieve beautiful uselessness in the future. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will carry around “phones” simply because they like to carry things, even though they may be connected to the net by something they wear (Loc 5030).
Ray Kurzweil not only shares this opinion, but also goes on to explain exactly what happens to technology as it evolves.
Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality.
Kurzweil goes further to state,
When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter). 
At some point in the future this will happen to reading and writing.  So Eisenstein is incorrect when she argues, 
...there is no sign that our libraries and museums without walls have begun to contract or that the burden of the past is diminishing for the literati of today. Thus, although I believe that scribal culture did come to an end, I am not persuaded that I can say the same about print culture (119). 
Now, to be fair, Eisenstein wrote this decades ago. And back then there were little signs of this changing. However, now it is much more apparent. We are now seeing major bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble start to go under. We see fewer and fewer people going to libraries. And this trend will not only continue, but it will accelerate.

What people do not seem to realize is that written language, as Kevin Kelly and Ray Kurzweil argue, is just one step in our evolution. Both Kelly and Kurzweil see technology as mimicking life in how it evolves. Below we have included part of Kelly’s argument. While we run the risk of quoting too much, we feel it is important in order to understand our point. Kelly states,
The evolution of science and technology parallels the evolution of nature. The major technological transitions are also passages from one level of organization to another. Rather than catalog important inventions such as iron, steam power, or electricity, in this view we catalog how the structure of information is reshaped by new technology. A prime example would be the transformation of alphabets (strings of symbols not unlike DNA) into highly organized knowledge in books, indexes, libraries, and so on (not unlike cells and organisms).   
Kelly goes on to list "The major transitions in technology according to the level at which information is organized;" a list which he says parallels Maynard Smith and Szathmary who wrote a book titled The Major Transitions in Evolution, in 1995. Kelly believes the major transitions in technology are: 
  • Primate communication 
  • Language Oral lore 
  • Writing/mathematical notation 
  • Scripts  Printing Book knowledge  
  • Scientific method Artisan production 
  • Mass production Industrial culture 
  • Ubiquitous global communication
Kelly then explains, what many people already know, which is the importance of the invention of language to our evolution. He states:
No transition in technology has affected our species, or the world at large, more than the first one, the creation of language. Language enabled information to be stored in a memory greater than an individual’s recall. A language-based culture accumulated stories and oral wisdom to disseminate to future generations. The learning of individuals, even if they died before reproducing, would be remembered. From a systems point of view, language enabled humans to adapt and transmit learning faster than genes. 
This could be a major reason why people are too scared of life without reading and writing. They may feel it represents the end of a technology which is almost single-handedly responsible for us reaching the heights we have in our evolution; an idea Kelly helps bring to light when he says,
The invention of writing systems for language and math structured this learning even more. Ideas could be indexed, retrieved, and propagated more easily. Writing allowed the organization of information to penetrate into many everyday aspects of life. It accelerated trade, the creation of calendars, and the formation of laws—all of which organized information further. 
And if speaking and writing had such an impact on evolution, then what about when the printing press came about? According to Kelly,
Printing organized information still more by making literacy widespread. As printing became ubiquitous, so did symbolic manipulation. Libraries, catalogs, cross-referencing, dictionaries, concordances, and the publishing of minute observations all blossomed, producing a new level of informational ubiquity—to the extent that today we don’t even notice that printing covers our visual landscape. 
Kelly continues to describe the other stages of this process, specifically the scientific method and science in general, until he reaches the stage we are in now.
Finally, the latest transition in the organization of knowledge is happening now. We inject order and design into everything we manufacture. We are also adding microscopic chips that can perform small amounts of computation and communication. Even the tiniest disposable item with a bar code shares a thin sliver of our collective mind. This all-pervasive flow of information, expanded to include manufactured objects as well as humans, and distributed around the globe in one large web, is the greatest (but not final) ordering of information. 
Kelly next goes on to show exactly how this technological evolution is a continuation of biological evolution.
The trajectory of increasing order in the technium follows the same path that it does in life. Within both life and the technium, the thickening of interconnections at one level weaves the new level of organization above it. And it’s important to note that the major transitions in the technium begin at the level where the major transitions in biology left off: Primate societies give rise to language. 
The invention of language marks the last major transformation in the natural world and also the first transformation in the manufactured world. Words, ideas, and concepts are the most complex things social animals (like us) make, and also the simplest foundation for any type of technology.
So as Kelly sees it, the creation of language is the "bridge" between the stages of natural evolution and the stages of technological evolution. Kelly's complete list of the major transitions, starting at the beginning of natural evolution and continuing through our technological evolution is as follows:  
  • One replicating molecule 
  • Interacting population of replicating molecules Replicating molecules 
  • Replicating molecules strung into chromosome Chromosome of RNA enzymes 
  • DNA proteins 
  • Cell without nucleus 
  • Cell with nucleus Asexual reproduction (cloning)
  • Sexual recombination Single-cell organism 
  • Multicell organism Solitary individual 
  • Colonies and superorganisms Primate societies 
  • Language-based societies Oral lore 
  • Writing/mathematical notation Scripts 
  • Printing Book knowledge 
  • Scientific method Artisan production 
  • Mass production Industrial culture 
  • Ubiquitous global communication
Ray Kurzweil makes a very similar argument. He also shows how technological evolution is a continuation of biological evolution. He also argues that evolution is really a process of storing and processing information. Kurzweil states:
Evolution works through indirection: each stage or epoch uses the information-processing methods of the previous epoch to create the next. I conceptualize the history of evolution—both biological and technological—as occurring in six epochs...
Epoch One: Physics and Chemistry "We can trace our origins to a state that represents information in its basic structures: patterns of matter and energy." 
       
Epoch Two: Biology and DNA "Ultimately, biological systems evolved a precise digital mechanism (DNA) to store information describing a larger society of molecules." 

Epoch Three: Brains "DNA-guided evolution produced organisms that could detect information with their own sensory organs and process and store that information in their own brains and nervous systems."

Epoch Four: Technology  ". . . technology was itself capable of sensing, storing, and evaluating elaborate patterns of information."

Kurzweil then goes on to describe the last 2 epochs, "Epoch Five: The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence" and "Epoch Six: The universe Wakes Up." (Loc. 502)

While Kurzweil does not specifically mention language and writing in his description of the 6 epochs, later on he does elaborate:
Consider the duration of observation. Single-cell animals could remember events for seconds, based on chemical reactions. Animals with brains could remember events for days. Primates with culture could pass down information through several generations. Early human civilizations with oral histories were able to preserve stories for hundreds of years. With the advent of written language the permanence extended to thousands of years (Loc. 1103).
via: skandalon
Looking at things from Kurzweil and Kelly’s viewpoint, reading and writing are just one step in our human evolution. An important step, but just one step never-the-less. Is it the last step? Is there no other possible way for us to figure out how to transmit, store, and receive information in a faster and more efficient way? We hope not. For it to be the last step, this would mean that we are at the end of our evolution. Would any of us be willing to admit this, even if on some level we thought it to be true? We hope not. How sad that would be for us and our future. Holding on to reading and writing and refusing to at least try to move on would be the equivalent of us saying we would prefer to stay apes.<

We will continue with the conclusion in this series in our last installment.


For those who want to demonstrate how learning from video is preferable for them than from reading, we provide a lecture of Kurzweil at TED.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://youtu.be/IfbOyw3CT6A.

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