When Did We Lose the Ability to Read and Write?

When did human beings lose the ability to read and write? Increasingly I’m finding that people just aren’t reading and writing nearly as much as they used to. I’m not alone in noticing this trend. Lately it has become a frequent subject of chatter with my more enlightened peers around the proverbial water cooler.

This trend towards illiteracy is no more evident than in the world of email. Back in the day, people actually used to read email, and shortly after reading a message, they would write back to you to acknowledge your message, answer your question or give some other appropriate response.

Nowadays it seems that people either skim the first few words of your email or don’t read it at all. Days later you’ll get an angry phone call or a face-to-face confrontation from someone who’ll ask something like “What’s the status of X? Why haven’t I heard anything about X? Why is no one telling me anything about X?”

Being the sane person that you are, you’ll reply “Didn’t you get my email about X?”

Invariably, they will answer your question with another question: “What email?”

Occasionally, they will actually be a little more forthcoming and admit “I’m sorry but I didn’t read your email. I was too busy.”

Ah, so there it is. You were too busy to have the courtesy to spend one minute to read my email.

They will sometimes add “Why didn’t you just talk to me about it?”

Naturally, before you sent the email, you thought about talking to the person about it…you know…because they’re too busy to read an email. But then you remember that the last time you tried to talk to that person face-to-face or phone them, they said (sometimes angrily), “I’m too busy right now to talk. Can’t it wait?”

Hey, we email writers have busy lives too. We wouldn’t bother sending the email if we didn’t think it was important to the recipient, in some way.

The thing I love about email is that it’s a lot less obtrusive than a phone call or a face-to-face meeting. When you receive an email, you can choose to read it when you have time. You don’t have to deal with it right away, when you’re busy with “more important” stuff.

Another thing I love about email is that you can send your message to multiple people at the same time. You don’t have to phone or talk to each and every person that you want to reach with your message.

I absolutely love being a youth sports coach but it can be frustrating when some of the parents I serve don’t read the emails I send. As a volunteer, coaching in my spare time, it takes a considerable amount of time to call each and every parent on a team. A single email is much more efficient. Of course, the human touch of a phone call or a face-to-face is warranted in some situations, but not many.

Another problem with verbal communications is that sometimes important points get forgotten or “lost in translation” later on when the person you spoke with is trying to recall the conversation or explain the message to a third party. This is how legal disagreements often arise. It’s the old “he said, she said” thing.

If something is in writing, there is a tangible record of the message. You remember the old adage “get it in writing” don’t you? Getting it in writing is the best way to “cover your ass” if something goes awry.

So when did we human beings forget how to read and write anyway? I think it started with Generation Y but lately it’s creeping into the older generations too. I blame the internet and all of its associated tech toys.

Take YouTube, for example. It’s so much easier to watch a how-to video rather than read a how-to document. Okay, I’ll admit that in some cases, video is a superior medium for a how-to. But video tends to gloss over or omit important details that are better suited to the print medium. For example, a written how-to is superior to a video how-to when you need to list precise and detailed settings for how to transform program X into killer app Y.

Another technology that is reducing our ability to read is the Podcast. Why read a blog post, a magazine article or a book when you can get it in Podcast form. It’s so easy and you can listen to it while you are driving your car. Just watch out for those pedestrians!

Streaming movies — there’s another one. Why read a story in novel form when you can just watch the movie instantly on your netbook, HDTV, iPod, iPad, iPhone, PSP or whatever other digital device you have? Never mind that the movie’s screenwriter might have cut important details from the book or had another interpretation of the ideas in the book. There’s that “lost in translation” problem again.

And what about the iPad? The iPad is reducing our ability to write. That thing is built for the express purpose of consuming multimedia. It’s definitely not for producing the written word. Heck, it doesn’t even have a real keyboard.

And Twitter? We’re quickly tweeting our way to illiteracy with that uber microblogging platform. Don’t know how to write a paragraph or even a sentence? No worries. Twitter to the rescue! Just type in a few misspelled words, LOLs and OMGs and suddenly you’re an internet journalist! Twitter is your new BFF!

The internet, and all of its gadgets, is quickly turning us into mostly visual and verbal communicators.  I know its been said a million times but the internet is fundamentally changing the way our species communicates. And it’s happening quicker than Global Warming.

Now, more than ever, the medium is the message. You don’t have to waste time reading a long newspaper story to decide for yourself that Charlie Sheen is crazy. All you have to do is look at a carefully chosen photo or video of Charlie Sheen on TMZ to see that he is crazy.

I’m not an internet hater. I love the internet. It has given me a great career and made many aspects of my life easier. But sometimes you have to sit back and reflect upon the things we might be losing because of the internet: literacy, for example.

Other tech bloggers have noticed this illiteracy trend too. For a slightly different take, check out Jake’s compelling thoughts in I’m Smart, I Don’t Read or Write Anymore. In his story, Jake surmises that this trend may be an “evolution of communication”.

What is the next stage of this evolution of communication? When I send an email in the future, instead of saying “I was too busy to read it” will the recipient simply say “Sorry dude, I can’t read”.

Maybe we’ll all have to be just like Leonardo Dicaprio in the movie Inception. To plant an idea in someone’s brain, we’ll have to sneak into their dreams at night.

I’m not throwing away my Android touch screen smart phone any time soon. Nor will I shy away from using YouTube, Twitter and Netflix. They are all here to stay, for better or worse. However, I’ll always be a frequent reader and writer and continue to use email, no matter where the mighty evolution of communication takes us.

As old Fezziwig said in A Christmas Carol, “No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.”

Think I’m crazy? Leave a comment!

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