The Internet, e-mail, and rapid electronic communications have had far-reaching effects on the way people of today write and on the style of material they read. This cultural revolution of literacy has not gone unnoticed. Two men in particular, Richard Lanham, a known professor, rhetorician, and author, and Jay David Bolter, another well-established man in education, have written extensively on its influence. Both men have valid points for their stances, but it all comes down to two conflicts: diversity vs. unity and efficiency vs. beauty. One’s preferences regarding them may vary, but there is no denying technology’s effect on how they are expressed.
In an interview regarding his book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham stated, “People want to share their information, their enthusiasms, their way of looking at the world and now they have an infinitely more effective way to do it”. In other words, the electronic age has brought about diverse means of expressing oneself, means which enable one to share anything and everything with the world at the click of a button. And with that same click, one can access all sorts of knowledge with little to no cost or effort. Further, Lanham asserts that this diversity creates a unity under rhetoric. Rhetoric, simply put, is, “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”, and technology provides countless new ways of practicing this ancient art. Compared to the many men lining the streets of Ancient Greece, relying on mere flattery and fancy words to convince their audiences of their beliefs, the Internet efficiently presents endless means of doing so, combining sound, video, text, animation, and graphics into one great enterprise. In addition to persuasion, Lanham establishes rhetoric as a general approach to knowledge, how to receive and interpret information for oneself, which is only broadened by the increasing forms of expression in present times. In conclusion, he believes bigger is better. The more available information is, the more easily people can grow in knowledge, and the better off society is for it.
Jay David Bolter, on the other hand, sees the increased use of technology in literacy as a huge loss of cultural unity. The idea of high culture which fueled education in the past has become unnecessary, and overall, unhelpful. With the Internet, there is an increased amount of interest groups in which people can immerse themselves and only have to deal with differing opinions or thoughts as much or as little as they want to. In this way, there is no standard of how to articulate or interpret things within a society, no hierarchy of information, and no basis of what needs to be known. For Bolter, the only unity thus obtained is that of the computer, on an operational level rather than one with purpose. One must come to accept that while computer literacy has caused great losses, especially in the arts, it has also greatly benefited the sciences, allowing for increased specialization and efficiency, ultimately increasing the world’s collective store of knowledge. While the individual might cease to have, or need, as broad a scope of knowledge, the world’s scope widens. In the end, Bolter accepts this shift, where cultural literacy becomes synonymous with electronic literacy, as inevitable, not bad but not necessarily good either.
While some level of unity is possible in today’s new age of literacy, whether that be on the basis of rhetoric or the operation of a computer, it will never be to the degree which it was before. The single hierarchy of culture which once ruled the social norms of a time and place have been replaced by thousands of differing interest groups, all being publicly shared across the Internet and personally shared through email and text messaging. This is seemingly beneficial for the individual in that they can be whoever they want to be without confining themselves to a standard. In contrast, it detriments human interaction and problem-solving. If each person is able to stay in their own little bubble, only confronting what they want to, rather than what might need to be reckoned with, there is no progression in society and only a growing disconnect between individuals. Everyone is so focused on themselves that the widespread problems involving everyone are ignored to a dangerous point. Further, without persons ever reconciling their views, the idea of truth is put in jeopardy. And when truth becomes relative, decision making is made impossible. Thus, the conflict between unity and diversity is revealed.
Moving on to efficiency and beauty, both are important in the world of reading and writing. A writer wants to be efficient in getting his point across, while also providing just enough detail to beautify his works. Nowadays, concision is everything. Texting slang has formed merely to respond to another as soon as possible. Key words are used in search bars to quickly find accurate information on the topic at hand. Even emojis have taken the place of full-on sentences, such as using a smiley face instead of stating, “I am happy.” Articles read on the Internet are often dumbed down for efficiency’s sake. And people have come to prefer these minimalistic forms of reading and writing to the elaborate and skilled works of previous times. What they forget is that writing was an art, and reading, a pleasure. They were activities done for themselves, not to get somewhere. That is not to say they were not useful or never needed to be completed in good time. They most definitely did, but it was both efficiency and quality that was important. Writing was used both as a form of expression and to teach, to share lessons about everyday life. Reading helped one learn new vocabulary and especially critical thinking. The enjoyment and growth of those well-versed in literacy is being lost in the world of technology. The question is: is it too high of a price for efficiency?
In conclusion, technology has and will continue to change the world of literacy. By looking into its effects, those analyzed by Richard Lanham, David Jay Bolter, and myself, it is obvious that there are pros and cons to this progression. Benefits and detriments which ultimately lie in the debate between both diversity vs. unity and efficiency vs. beauty.