The Null Device
Every so often, one reads horror stories about how technology is destroying our ability to write: about kids robbed of grammatical ability by text messaging, or PowerPoint presentations eroding the ability to string sentences together. . Now, a professor of writing claims the opposite: thanks to the internet, we are entering a golden age of literacy. According to Professor Andrea Lunsford of Stanford University, thanks to the internet, email, blogs, forums and instant messaging, people write more than in living memory, and consequently, more people than ever have the sorts of highly developed and practiced writing skills that previously were the domain of an elite cadre of professional wordsmiths:
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.
But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
The brevity of texting and status updating teaches young people to deploy haiku-like concision. At the same time, the proliferation of new forms of online pop-cultural exegesis—from sprawling TV-show recaps to 15,000-word videogame walkthroughs—has given them a chance to write enormously long and complex pieces of prose, often while working collaboratively with others.