Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Future of the Internet IV

Part 2: A review of responses to a tension pair about the impact of the internet on reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge

The future of books

q2: Reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge will be improved

Respondents were asked to explain their choice and “share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, specifically when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?”

Interestingly, people often replied to this question with personal stories about their own reading and writing habits. What follows is a selection of the hundreds of written elaborations and some of the recurring themes in those answers:

The evidence is pretty clear: The actual words that are being written in the world of texting and Tweeting are not so hot.

“Most writing online is devolving toward SMS and tweets that involve quick, throwaway notes with abbreviations and threaded references. This is not a form of lasting communication. In 2020 there is unlikely to be a list of classic tweets and blog posts that every student and educated citizen should have read.” – Gene Spafford, Purdue University CERIAS, Association for Computing Machinery U.S. Public Policy Council

“IMHO the bigger problem is the lack of critical thinking in the Information Age. What is presented online may not be correct but interpreted as such by the reader. Further, writing seems to take 2 distinct ‘evolutions’ – there is FORMAL writing used in reports and professional work, and the INFORMAL writing used in personal emails, IM, and social networking that would (or should) never cross over into the FORMAL category of writing. Right now it’s debatable how much the latter has transgressed into the former — as for me I cringe in such cases!” – Richard Forno, Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

Some kinds of expression will “lose.” Others will “win.”

“This is a distinction without a metric. I think long-form expressive fiction will suffer (though this suffering has been more or less constant since the invention of radio) while all numeric and graphic forms of rendering knowledge, from the creation and use of databases to all forms of visual display of data will be in a golden age, with ordinary non-fiction writing getting a modest boost. So, English majors lose, engineering wins, and what looks like an Up or Down question says more about the demographic of the answerer than any prediction of the future.” – Clay Shirky, professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University

Reading and writing will be different in 10 years. Language has always evolved to embrace new realities and it is evolving now. There will be a new fluidity in media creation. Visual representations and story telling will be important in new ways, so “screen” literacy will emerge.

“I think the state of reading and writing will be *different* in ten years as a result of the Internet. Languages evolve, and established practices for writing evolve; when books were hand-lettered by scribes, they were written very differently than they are now, but it’s hard to make a case that the practice got “worse.” The Internet and associated publishing tools — blogs, Twitter, and the like — may have an accelerating effect on those changes; the art of reading, writing, and rendering knowledge is likely to evolve more quickly than it has in the past, and there are some who would argue that that is a bad thing. I think it will be different; not better, not worse, but not the same.” – Rachel Smith, vice president, New Media Consortium

“The Internet will drive a clear and probably irreversible shift from written media to visual media. Expressing ideas in the future will just as likely involve creating a simulation as writing an expository essay. Whether that will make our renderings of knowledge less intelligent is unclear, but I think its likely that there are tremendous opportunities to enhance it. For instance, would it be more intelligent to render our knowledge of politics in Ancient Egypt as a book-length essay or a realistic, interactive role-playing simulation?” – Anthony Townsend, research director, Institute for the Future

“When I was a boy, homework consisted of writing a paragraph. Now, youth writing paragraphs in a blink of an eye. They are mastering language only to reinvent it. They are using it in new forms. Tags. Labels. Acronyms. And the game becomes a written game of who can use written word most effectively. Reading, writing, and communicating will become much more fluid as youth are more engaged in the practice of these skills, and have a greater motivation to practice their skills.” – Robert Cannon, senior counsel for internet law at Federal Communications Commission

“We are currently transitioning from reading mainly on paper to reading mainly on screens. As we do so, most of us read MORE, in terms of quantity (word count), but more promiscuously and in shorter intervals and with less dedication. As these habits take root, they corrupt our willingness to commit to long texts, as found in books or essays. We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts. This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in ‘Haiku-culture’ replacing ‘book-culture.’” – Andreas Kluth, writer, Economist magazine

The nature of writing has changed now, especially since so much of it takes place in public. The quality of the new material will get better over time, in part because these new social media creators will get feedback and learn. Today’s changes parallel other historic changes that occurred when new technologies came on the scene.

“The internet has helped shift written communication from a private space to a public one. Not all manifestations of this shift are pleasant ones – we are discovering that many of the people who surround us are angry, partisan and ill-informed. But for the most part, we’re experiencing the benefits of being encouraged to develop ideas and arguments in public. Shifting writing from private to public spaces, in the long run, will be beneficial for the spread of human knowledge.” – Ethan Zuckerman, Global Voices

“The internet is clearly responsible for an explosion in content production. We must remember that these measures of evaluation are normative and shift over time – enhancement and improvement is relative. I firmly believe that more people than ever before will be afforded the opportunity to write and create, to find audiences, and engage in content-enhancing feedback loops that will enhance communication.” – Fred Stutzman, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

“The printing press diminished reliance on oral history and myth, photography transformed the purpose of visual art, and music recording reduced the stock of amateur musicians. We are currently experience a similar mass shift to a new means of sense-making and knowledge transmission. Literacy is a historical construct that will continue, but in the context of new, pervasive norms that are only now emerging.” – Nathaniel James, executive director, OneWebDay

“The internet generation is being exposed to text and media in unprecedented quantities, and more, is not just consuming this media, but producing it as well. Practice tells. The improvement will be especially dramatic and apparent because new readers will be compared primarily with the previous generation, the television generation, which for the most part did not read at all. Unfortunately, this improvement will be apparent only to the newly literate generation; the older generation will continue to complain that young people cannot read, despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, it will be apparent by 2020 that a multi-literate society has developed, one that can communicate with ease through a variety of media, including art and photography, animation, video, games and simulations, as well as text and code.” – Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

“When writing itself appeared, philosophers feared that it would weaken memory and degrade intelligence. But it allowed for a great, albeit externalized memory and an enlarged, albeit shared intelligence. When printing came on the scene, scholars decried the new technology for propagating error and, as it were, for throwing pearls before swine. But printing expanded knowledge, not least because it could exactly reproduce texts and, more importantly, pictures and diagrams. And it made this knowledge more broadly available than every before. The Internet will have similar effects, with some losses but, on balance, more gains.” – Mark U. Edwards, senior advisor to the Dean, Harvard University Divinity School

Links that allow people to jump from text to text and explore material further have changed the nature of reading and argumentation. Networked information has special qualities and can be better than the front-to-back linear kind of reading that people have usually done.

“The way we read and write is certainly changing. Spelling and grammar have gotten worse. People don’t think things through or edit as much before publishing or sending as they once did. But on the other hand, the Internet has improved my Chinese reading and writing ability. The hyperlink enables me to communicate in non-linear ways that adds layers of meaning to my writing that could not exist on paper. The fact that I can mix visuals, sound, and text when making an argument or telling a story often enhances the effectiveness of my work.” – Rebecca MacKinnon, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy


People are doing more reading and writing now and that has to be better than the alternative. The act of making media in the Web 2.0 world – and beyond – has to increase people’s engagement with information and conveying it.

“More people are reading and writing, and in more ways, for more readers and other writers, than ever before, and the sum of all of it goes up every day.” – Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto”

“I think that a marginally greater number of people will be engaged in creating media–visual as well as text–and as a result, the overall literacy will increase. I also think that the practice of allusion will have a much shorter lead time.” – Alex Halavais, , vice president, Association of Internet Researchers

“For heaven’s sake. It’s clear NOW that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge. You have to know how to read, it encourages writing, and people can exchange knowledge. Don’t confuse this with the business models behind serious publishing, encyclopedias, and universities. The future of books is tied into whether there is a social/business model that supports writing for intellectual content rather than as marketing brochures or advertising-bait.” – Seth Finkelstein, author of the Infothought blog, writer and programmer

The internet is increasing the amount of reading and writing. That means there is more good writing, and more people reading the good writing. But, in accordance with Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of internet writing will be crud, because 90% of everything is crud. So there will be more crud writing and reading as well.” – Peter Norvig, Google Research Director

“Reading and writing will increase as those using the internet and the wealth of information continue to be exposed to a wide view of vocabulary, word use, and contextual information. Grammar, vocabulary, and more will continue to improve, especially for those being brought up solely on the internet as the major reference and information/knowledge repository.” – Kevin Novak, World Wide Web Consortium, Chair E-GOV section

“We may lose our ability to write, in the literal sense that students are no longer taught penmanship. We will either type or print like 8 year olds. But I think even email stimulates the putting of ideas into writing. And while we may read only on electronic media, I think the book and the scholarly work will survive as important means both of transferring knowledge and of entertainment.” – David Clark, senior research scientist for the Next-Generation Internet, MIT professor

“The internet will definitely *develop* reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge. Most people read more and pretty much everybody writes more because of the internet. The *quality* of this material may be lower – if measured in terms of grammar and spelling – but that’s the wrong measurement.” – Hjalmar Gislason, founder DataMarket, a marketplace for structured data

“It’s popular to decry texting and lousy email drafting, but it’s clear to me that people are writing and reading more than ever before because of the Internet. It’s also clear to me that good writing is recognized and admired online. I don’t think the advent of video will change that – people in a hurry for information still want to scan text instead of being subject to someone else’s video habits. Presenting yourself these days requires having a written identity, and that will continue to be the case ten years from now.” – Susan Crawford, former member of President Obama’s National Economic Council, now on the law faculty at the University of Michigan

Material produced by crowds – like Wikipedia — is a new kind of way to produce and share knowledge and challenging old models.

“There is a transformation in what how we acquire, use, disseminate and share knowledge, particularly in notions of participatory culture. Knowledge produced by individuals, with clear ownership of copyright and production, will have to share center stage with knowledge produced by the crowds, as in Wikipedia, but also in many other potential collaborations.” – Caroline Haythornthwaite, professor in graduate school of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A fourth “R” will be added to the basic learned skills of “reading, ‘ritin, ;’rithmatic”: Retrieval. Maybe the ability to write computer code will be a necessary literacy. Maybe it will be the ability to write smart search queries.

“I used to bemoan the lost epistolary art however with the benefit of time I have come to understand that there is far greater benefit to an engaged/active consumption of media (as opposed to the passive consumption of the past). As media becomes more socialized and we are all required to be active consumers, producers etc. there is an inherent need for us to have a heightened and enhanced comprehension, a concise and disciplined writing form and a more universal lens. As Udi Manber of Google extolled, the four R’s will become reading, writing, arithmetic, and retrieval. The web will be that interactive mechanism that allows this improvement for these basic human skills.” – Brian O’Shaughnessy, director of communications, Skype

“This one is clear to me. Reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge will improve — but will people be equipped to separate the crap from the accurate information? That’s a critical uncertainty.” – Howard Rheingold, author of several prominent books on technology, teacher at Stanford University and University of California-Berkeley

“The kind of literacy gained by exposure to technology and the internet is becoming increasingly necessary and nuanced, but not in ways that will likely please grammaticians. Instead, the rules of languages are being rewritten by what our devices facilitate and make easy — from being able to achieve spelling proficiency by relying on spellcheck to inventing entirely new syntax for presenting a message (from emoticons to hashtags). One question is whether code will become a form of literature unto itself. While it seems the provenance of engineers and developers today, nothing is to say that making it through high school won’t require fluency in HTML or JavaScript rather than French (remember, Google will translate for you in real-time). And if code is one of the most direct means to express an idea, perhaps it will become a unifying, albeit fairly unromantic, language of the ages.” – Chris Messina, CEO, Citizen Agency, internet consultancy

“We will redefine what we mean by reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge. Writing may be making videos. Reading may be parsing data or constructing better queries. How we teach the skills of acquiring, analyzing, and sharing information will have to change.” – Jeff Jarvis, prominent blogger, professor, City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

By 2020, we will have entered a “post literacy” era.

“In 2020 we will have entered post literacy era. With everything “smart” and information constantly available, reading and writing took on new dimensions in their place of human skills. Problem solving and reasoning became more important. Reading and writing more largely replaced by voice in- voice out types of interactions. Instantaneous language translation at higher levels of accuracy than could be attained by human beings replaced the need for translators and written word as we currently know it. Whether this is an inherent evil is certainly not clear. Hence, the wording of the item forces us to make an inappropriate value judgment.” – Stephen F. Steele, professor, Institute for the Future, Anne Arundel Community College

The final word: A vision for how the “book” of the future will serve us.

“Instead of reading and writing, let’s say communication and content creation will be easier and enhanced. I hope that the future of books is this: A regular size, regular weight hardcover will contain not paper but epaper that any book can be embedded into, and the content can change at my whim. I can move fluidly between professionally- produced audio and text with optional hyperlinks that bring me to definitions, criticism, reviews, and discussion forums – i.e. I can read to page 50, plug it into my car and listen to it for 10 pages, and pick up reading again on page 60 at my destination. Multimedia would be embedded – a novel might link to a character blog, a reference book might include video, author bios would be a video. The “paper” will be a full color touch screen…. My local library will loan me ebooks for free, that I can download without ever setting foot into a library building. Anyone would be able become a content creator, because of the ease of the publishing platform. And I would be able to seamlessly consume content in any format on any platform.” – Beth Gallaway, library consultant and trainer

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