Literacy Off the Page: The Changing Nature of Literacy in a Technological World



Kindle displaying The Washington PostThe 14th Annual Literacy Breakfast

Our yearly event took place on March 18. A provocative panel spoke to the future of print and literacy.

William Crossman--philosopher, futurist and professor--asserted that in 50 years print would be a thing of the past. This would be a positive step in the evolution of human society in which all-sensory ITs will replace reading and writing and actually encourage the democratization of information worldwide.

Dr. Jean Holbrook, San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools, spoke optimistically about how technology is providing exciting opportunities for student learning, especially with the emergence of electronic text books.

J. Maarten Troost, author and self-proclaimed Luddite, spoke about the joy of the printed word and how he saw it co-existing with technology.

Last, but not least, Phil Bronstein, Executive Vice President and Editor-at-Large, Hearst Newspapers, announced to a dismayed audience that newspapers are indeed really dead, though (he continued more optimistically) journalism is not.

Healthy Range of Perspectives

Whether you agreed or not, the program provided food for thought.

Below are some comments from attendees. If you were there, what did you think? Even if you weren't,  join the conversation online.

Audience Thoughts


I just finished talking about the Literacy Network Breakfast on Thursday night at our Bible Study class for our 'good news' segment, and on the telephone more than once. WOW! I was impressed with all the speakers. At various times they seemed a little depressing while attempting to spread hope. I noticed that Dr. Jean Holbrook shared the most hope. Phil Bronstein was very open and honest with his thoughts. I missed some of William Crossman's speech. I talked to him briefly about my life with three generations of relatives and some older close friends. He was astonished that I have been living with the computer, SKYPE, and online writing my 4 books. He wanted to know more, but time did not permit those details of my experiences. Here's one he laughed out loud on. My 20 years old grandson texted his Dad from college."I have no money." What ever happen to 'Hello and goodbye'?

--Eleanor Curry


I agree with you, very thought provoking. Loved it. So far my favorite J. Since it happened I have just taken every opportunity I've had to comment on it. Talked to Darwin, Rebecca, my husband when I got home last night and one of my tutors who came in this morning. Looking forward to the discussion on the blog (can't believe I'm saying this).A face to face discussion would still be my favored option.

--Nathalie Jackson


Hi Jeanine! I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday's program.I felt as though I were among kindred spirits all morning. I would have loved to ask the speakers what they think of Wikipedia and its effect on the library world. I've often wondered if that concept could be adapted to journalism somehow. My background is as a news reporter. And I met my husband, Carl, a sports columnist for the Oakland Tribune on the job. After I became a librarian, I worked for a short time at the S.F. Examiner library and Phil Bronstein was the managing editor then. So, of course, I was very interested to hear what Mr. Bronstein had to say. Much of it didn't surprise me but it was unnerving to hear it from another respected name in the 'business'.

--Celeste Steward


I have had this conversation with a few different groups of people this week and it is indeed thought provoking. Some people had shocked looks on their faces when I brought it up and others shook their heads yes or no and heated conversation ensued. Great topic. I loved every minute of being there and would like to have had a personal conversation with each and every one of the presenters. They were interesting, entertaining and darn smart.

 --Josephine Pritchard


I don't think the futurist had thoughts things through to their logical conclusion if such a world comes to pass. There are cognitive benefits to the brain pathways developed when learning to read that would be lost if we reverted to an all-oral culture. How is this a good thing?

His analogy of the car to horse and buggy does not address the losses of habitat, environmental degradation, the fragmentation of communities and families that the automobile has wrought. So too he did not elaborate at all on the consequences of a reversion, a "devolution" as he termed it, of written expression. What kind of world would that be--he made it sound like it would be wonderful. I think assuredly it would not be. It is this lack of intellectual follow-through that undermines his arguments and damages his credibility. I could not take his ideas seriously because they were so flawed with lack of scholastic rigor. A few newspaper articles do not make a credible treatise.

Such a world would rely entirely on technology that itself relies on external power sources. Should those power sources fail or become disabled, it all falls apart. We are already risking utter collapse of civilization as we know it from dependence on external power sources. This would exacerbate that risk ten-fold since there would be no one who would be able to read, let alone understand, the technical manuals to bring it all back, even if that were possible. It would be Lord of the Flies within weeks of wholesale shutdown of the energy infrastructure.

In an all-oral culture, how would complex disciplines such as the sciences, math, philosophy and most other higher level knowledge systems be transmitted, maintained, built upon? It presupposes again technological storage devices that no one will know how to access or maintain let alone invent.

Also implicit is an assumption that these technological interfaces would be readily and freely available to all peoples throughout the world. This assumption is blatantly false since all of those things and the underlying infrastructure are costly--who pays, who maintains? Would developing nations actually have the resources to participate in this global conversation enabled by expensive, complex technology? Would even developed nations be able to divert resources to such a world? We can barely maintain our infrastructure as it is now.

In the end, I think J. Martin Troust had it right when he said that both systems will co-exist. We are already communicating across distances using technology like Skype and its successors to communicate orally with family. Teleconferencing in business will become a necessity due to travel costs and efficiencies. These are the natural developments (which again presuppose that the underlying infrastructure will remain in place) of technological advances and are beneficial in many ways--but there is always a cost. These costs need to be examined closely so that things just don't go on their merry way unremarked upon or mitigated.

--Thom Ball


Newspapers are an interesting topic. I subscribe to newspapers and read some of them online. I think that if other newspapers charge for papers, they should be good. Librarians understand that having print newspapers and online newspapers are more accurate than You Tube and other places to get news on blogs, etc. I use Facebook but don't use it for news. I'm not that trusting.

--Cathie Scalice


Author Bio:

Jeanine Asche has over 30 years of library experience working mostly with children and families. In her spare time, besides reading of course, she dabbles in painting, enjoys hiking with her family, and refereeing her animal menagerie--a crazy lab mix, a loveable tabby cat, a rambunctious kitten, and, if 3 weren't enough, this mix occasionally includes a spirited "grand puppy".



I agree with Thom's comments, especially his pointing out the fragility and unsustainability of our electricity infrastructure. Overenthusiastic futurists often tend to overlook the economic digital divide that still exists in the world-- so many don't even have access to telephones, let alone computers or the Internet. What bugs me in this debate, as in many others, is that there is an either/or mentality that takes hold. There's no reason that print has to die in order for electronic media to flourish. In fact, these two forms of media can live side by side.

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