Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Friday, September 25, 2009

Technology's Impact on Young Americans: Part I

Brain Rage's James B. Webb just published an article on a subject of particular interest to me, Technology's Effect on the Written Word. I have had increasing concern about the bastardization of our language as technology has evolved into a plethora of gadgets and communication systems. The question is no longer simply, "Do you Google?" It is, "Do you Twit?" Pun intended.

Webb, pondering over whether or not an age of illiteracy is at hand, offers up an interesting study by Stanford University professor of writing and rhetoric, Andrea Lunsford. "From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,762 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions."

I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. Webb adds that for Lunsford, "technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Sanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom.

I would be presumptuous—and probably dead wrong—to dispute the overall findings of such a massive study. But I have concerns that are obviously beyond the scope of the study yet bear some scrutiny as they are related to this phenomenon. So, I sent a copy of Webb's article, without comment but asking for his, to Dr. Edward McShane, Chairman of the English Department at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.

McShane responded: "Andrea Lunsford is a first rate composition scholar so I would respect her views; in fact, I think that she may be correct that students do write more out of class than they did years ago."

I do believe students communicate more; however I believe their style, syntax and vocabulary are stunted by the outrageous informality of email, twitter and so on. Their prose lacks elegance and precision but they can do a workmanlike job of getting their ideas across; something that earlier student writers might not have been able to do.

I concur with Lunsford's findings and with McShane's assessment. But I question the use of the term "literacy revolution," and wonder if it's viable in this case. McShane touches on a major concern of mine: is good English usage being sacrificed for the sake of quick communication.

According to Webster, literacy is "the quality or state of being literate." I simply don't see that literacy has much to do with going online or with social networking. Certainly blogs, essays and formal papers involve more serious writing and hopefully, some literacy, but social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are simply a means of communication. They have no literacy requirements beyond some basic codes. McShane, I think, is more accurate in saying that students "communicate" more than in the past.

Lunsford reasons that so many more young people are writing online because of the socializing aspects which involve text. I'm sure this is true but I just can't seem to wrap my brain around the idea that this so-called revolution will have any impact on literacy. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it will have a detrimental effect. I have seen an alarming increase in bad writing over the years just in emails alone. Maybe it's the company I keep.

I used to work with this twit who mangled the English language every time she opened her mouth. She had noodles for brains, and God forbid, wanted to be a teacher. I would watch in amazement, and some envy, as her flying fingers composed text messages. But I hate to think that this ignorant and illiterate girl represents the "literacy revolution.

If technology is "reviving our ability to write," which I seriously doubt, once written, is it intelligible? One only has to read the comments after online news articles to see that woefully few people can write a simple grammatical sentence. Maybe I'm being pedantic but I'd hate to see writing standards lowered to the point that "Meet u 2night @ 7 @ fav bar" is the norm.

Jonathon Swift twitters Alexander Pope:

Swift: "meet me @ pub @ 4. ???s re Rape of Lock."

Pope: "OK. Need to hit ur scat lingo in Gs Travels."

Swift: "Wats wrong w/ dirt?"

Pope: "Its smutty."

Swift: "& rape isnt?"


  1. I think that your point is valid as it relates to texting and Twittering Leslie but I also think that those forms of communication inhibit good English skills by their inherent limit on the number of characters that can be used. I rarely abbreviate my texts and I feel like an inefficient dinosaur as a result. Email and blogging on the other hand are much longer forms of communication and are probably what made up the bulk of the positive results in this study. Thanks for the link.

  2. Blogs seem to exhibit much better writing than emails. But having had a research business of my own for nearly ten years,I have seen a steady decline in acceptable writing skills.

    BTW, Part II is not going to be quite so optimistic. I'm having a hard time getting through the book. It's so dull and badly written I'm about to blow my brains out!