On the Future of Reading and Writing

[first posted by Alice on 1/19/2011]

As I search the web, I find a wide range of opinions about the future of publishing, reading and writing. At one extreme, there are those who have a neo-Luddite disdain for any form of digital technology, who claim that printed books are perfect the way they are and should never change. At the other extreme, there’s Patrick Tucker at The Futurist, magazine of the World Future Society, who thinks that reading and writing may soon have a marginal role in our lives. In his 2009 article, “The Dawn of the Postliterate Age,” Tucker claims that by 2050 written language will be “functionally obsolete.” He supports that claim by noting that “between 1982 and 2007, reading declined by nearly 20% for the overall U.S. population and 30% for young adults aged 18–24[.]”  We love to look at images, Tucker says, and as we have more and more ways to look at images, we will want to read less and less.

Tucker quotes Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory…. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.… My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” The fact that the written word is so important to people who communicate via text message is seen by Tucker as the last gasp of a Golden Age of the technology of writing.

Less extreme points of view on the future of reading and the effects of digital publishing appeared in a New York Times article called “Does the Brain Like e-Books?” Five people gave their thoughtful and well-considered opinions (an English professor, a professor of child development, a computer scientist, a professor of informatics, and an author of a book on the brain). Of the five participants, only the English professor seems unreservedly enthusiastic about digital publishing.

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