Friday, August 24, 2012

How Technology Democratizes and Degrades Writing

Some years back I taught a middle school English class. One of my 13-year-old students stated without embarrassment that she didn’t see the point in learning to spell well, since her laptop spell-checked her writing and her smart phone auto-corrected her texting. The other students generally were of the same mindset.

New technology changes our relationship to the written word and to language itself. William Caxton, who himself introduced the world-transforming printing press to England in the 15th century, complained that “our language now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken whan I was borne.” It’s futile trying to preserve a language in amber; the only language that isn’t in flux is a dead one. But the technology accelerated the change, just as today’s technology has exponentially accelerated greater change.

From the printing press to the typewriter to the personal computer, technology facilitates and democratizes writing. The speed, ease, and freedom with which we can write in the digital age have resulted in a worldwide explosion of uninhibited written expression. We interact hourly with chatty social media. We vent on online blogs. Any one of us can self-publish a book.

But in his 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Sven Birkerts was already growing anxious about the downside: electronic media eroding literary culture. He lamented the displacement of the “slow conventions of narrative” by “the rush of impulses [through] the innumerable affiliated webs” of the internet.

For impatient younger generations, the digital age may not only be democratizing writing but degrading it. Their ability to communicate thoughtfully and precisely is diminishing, as the rules and standards of language are willingly sacrificed to the character limitations of tweeting and texting, the proliferation of acronyms like lol and imho, and the easy visual shortcuts of emoticons. For them, it’s pedantic and archaic to insist on abiding by those rules and standards anymore – do so and you’re a Grammar Nazi.

But from the personal to the political, mastery of language is paramount. Once we lose the ability and desire to convey an emotion in our own words, not with a one-size-fits-all lol or plug-in emoticon, then we no longer express ourselves truly and clearly and beautifully. My middle school students didn’t see the value in the demanding mental exercise of meditation, organization, and precision of language that good writing requires. In the long run, their apathy and fascination with the rapid-fire ephemera of the digital realm will surely erode their ability to express themselves fully as individuals, even to think deeply.

The late John Updike claimed to write his nonfiction on a typewriter but his fiction with a pencil because it provided the intimacy necessary to bring his characters to life. Surely this must seem inexplicable and comically quaint to today’s youth. But they’d be better off unplugging occasionally and connecting with those “slow conventions of narrative” of the pre-digital era.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/22/12)