In the wake of what is sure to be the end of the world as we know it–and this doesn’t have to sound as apocalyptic as I make it seem–some are asking whether we are culturally prepared for the oncoming shift.
There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.
We are not a literate society. We are an aliterate society. That is, even people who know how to read don’t want to read. They’d much rather get their stuff from television, or now from the internet. And without the critical skills imparted by literature, these people are going to rely much more on flash, style, and entertainment. Leaving them woefully unable to figure out their place in the new world, much less able to imagine the new possibilities within it.
But what’s the other side of this coin?
My just turned 4 year old son knows how to navigate the web with savvy. My other children have established strong social networks with people across the country through various web pages. The tendency is to turn back to the old standbys, to wax romantic about how reading requires a type of interaction that is inherently more critical, inherently more engaging. In the article above, the writer turn to Hannah Arendt who argues that with the growing requirement that media “entertain” we are emphasizing the (wrong) needs of the consumer.
There was a moment in the forties and fifties where critics fought back against the massification of society, arguing in effect that we were empty vases open to all types of BS from the “mass media.” And I’m not immune to making this criticism myself. But what people realized is that the consumer isn’t quite as passive as we were led to believe. You can send a leftist pro-free market media until the cows come home. Her attitudes aren’t shifting a bit. We can rail against kids sending text messages of fewer and fewer syllables all we want to…but doing so we ignore the fact that we can convey complex ideas in extremely small packages.
The above quote comes from Muhammad Ali. If I weren’t broke I’d bet that none of my readers could come up with a more sophisticated rendering of the ecstasy of being.