Monday, September 21, 2009

Technology's Effect On The Written Word

Clive Thompson of Wired magazine examines the new literacy created by the ubiquity of modern technology:

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can't write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
Since finishing my first and only year of law school I wrote very little in the vein of essay length prose during my everyday life. When I started this blog a year and a half ago my writing felt extraordinarily stiff and stilted as I remembered how easily my words used to flow when I was writing on a constant basis back in college. I still wince a bit when I go back and read some of the awkwardly arranged paragraphs from my earliest posts here but I have to admit that this largely useless enterprise has definitely helped to resharpen my rhetorical skills, although I'm sure that my humility and long-windedness could both still use some work.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone less humble and more long-winded, I know the feeling. I share a lot of your experiences.

Despite pretensions of wanting to write fiction (with which I still play around but to which I consistently refuse to commit) I have never written regularly and consistently at any length since my own academic days. Since starting my own blogs I have written nearly 140 essays.

My peak activity never matches the daily blogs and I go through periods of burnout where instead of my ideal weekly goal I write one or two pieces in a month... but I also have significant prolific bursts overwhelming what is intended to be a weekly blog. :)