DEATH OF LITERACY: DIGITAL TOTALITARIANISM
by Bill Weinberg
OK, there's an irony to the fact that I'm writing this on Facebook. I just posted a clip about the terrifying reality that penmanship is being dropped from grade-school curricula nationwide. Massachusetts is apparently one of the last states to keep penmanship lessons in the classroom. To my surprise and dismay, the post was met with a barrage of clueless dismissal and techno-optimism; smarmy comments about bringing back quill pens; and glib assurances that "The world is always changing, sometimes for the better." Although nobody is paying me for this, I feel compelled to spell out the critique, mostly out of sheer alarm at the degree to which my "friends" don't "get it."
Throughout my adult life, I have seen the fields of writing of and publishing radically decline under the assault of digital technology. The set of skills we call literacy are deteriorating as our minds are occupied more and more with "programs" and "code" and "apps" and "texting." Anyone who has spent time with Orwell understands that this inevitably means a decline in our ability to think.
The decline of this skill set has economic roots, driven by the capitalist logic of "downsizing redundancy." The first real job I had as an adult was doing mechanical lay-out for the Queens Tribune in the '80s—yes, with exacto-knives and rubber cement. Within a matter of years, this entire occupation would be completely eliminated. By then I was working as a writer and editor. This field would be hit next, its contraction paralleling the hypertorphy of digital technology.
In the '90s, in addition to an editorial position at High Times I had a thriving freelance career, writing frequently for The Nation and the like. In this same period, the World Wide Web exploded and the final assault on print journalism was launched. In the ensuing years, journalism generally was dumbed down as the pagination of print publications shrunk. The discipline of brevity was increasingly enforced, and consequently nuance and seriousness fell out of favor, replaced by an emphasis on celebrity, sound-bites, "'tude," and play-to-the-crowd dogmatism. There was also a drift to the right across the media, which did not fail to affect the "left" media (especially obvious at The Nation). But the constant whining about right-wing bias from FAIR (mirrored by whining about left-wing bias from their opposite numbers) somewhat misses the point. Far more serious has been the general decline in standards of literacy, honesty and seriousness.
The trend has been universal. Obviously, the general intellectual level started out higher at The Nation than High Times (although HT ran lots of very smart long-form journalism in its time). But they were both respectively dumbed down. By the mid-00's I wasn't writing for either, but was reduced to trying to squeeze a living out of my blogs, like thousands of other downsized journalists. I have technically become a part of the lumpen—not in the popular sense of degeneracy and criminality, but in the precise Marxist sense of a worker displaced from my economic niche.
This story does have a partially (and unlooked-for) happy ending. After a hiatus of several years, I am writing for High Times again, as new editorial leadership has tilted back in a more intelligent direction—which demonstrates that resistance is not futile and that trend is not necessarily destiny. But the trend still exists.
The shrinking of page numbers has of course given way to the disappearance of print publications altogether. Two of the publications I have frequently written for over the past decade and change, NACLA Report on the Americas and Indian Country Today, have just recently shut down their print editions altogether and now exist only online. At least Indian Country Today still pays its contributors; NACLA no longer does. But the intellectual implications of the digital hypertrophy are utlimately far more grave than its implications for the ability of freelance journalists to support themselves.
It isn't a coincidence that the digital hypertrophy has coincided with a terrifying deterioration of the political climate, with lines between left and right being blurred by crude populism and vulgar conspiracy theories at the expense of class (or indeed any) analysis. As blogging has eclipsed journalism, the DIY approach and attendant anything-goes atmosphere have become hegemonic. Most of my friends no longer read newspapers, but get their news from blogs and websites they already agree with (or just view what is posted by their Facebook "friends"), entrenching groupthink and sanctimony and eroding mental rigor. There are a gazillion websites out there, but actual news has shrunk along with newspapers, now mostly produced by a few wire services, themselves with degraded standards. And I say this as a proud auto-didact who has always had contempt for bourgeois standards of "professionalism." It is now obvious that the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction.
Even those emerging from the academy today don't know (or don't care) how to use quotation marks due to the ubiquity of cut-and-paste. I now see incorrect quote marks more frequently than correct ones. Wire services have entirely dropped brackets in favor of parenthesis, the traditional distinction between them being rapidly forgotten. Language as an instrument of precision is being dulled to the point where it is nearly impossible to say anything at all—much less to be understood by an audience that isn't even really "reading" as we used to understand it.
Will anyone really deny that reading comprehension is degraded online? Most obvious are the endless distractions of embedded links that lead you astray mid-sentence. Attention spans have been nearly intentionally abbreviated through Instagram and Twitter. More often forgotten is that reading is a physical act. Actually holding a book, magazine or newspaper imposes a posture and frame of mind that loans itself to deep attention. Online, people don't really read at all; if it is anything longer than a "tweet," we skim, with rare exception. This is one reason last year's New York state initiative approving a "paperless legislature" (with law-makers no longer receiving print-outs of bills) is so dangerous; it virtually guarantees that more bad laws will be passed, with sinister details slipping through unread.
Another example from my own professional life. In the lean years that I was working purely as a freelancer, one of the ways I made ends meet was by copy-editing for a financial daily which will go nameless here. When I started working there in 2000 or thereabouts, there were four full-time copy-editors with me pinch-hitting in case anyone called in sick. With the 2008 crunch, they dropped it down to two copy-editors, letting two go. Initially, I actually picked up work, because they would bring me in for an hour or two each day for the deadline rush. Then they decided, no more freelancers. So the work that a decade earlier was done by four copy-editors with me pinch-hitting is now done by two—without anyone pinch-hitting. If one calls in sick, work that used to be done by four is done by one. Obviously, more grammatical and factual errors are slipping through. The language, and reportorial rigor, are being sacrificed, and this is not only an austerity measure (although it is certainly that); it also reflects a shift in values driven by the digital culture.
The "digital revolution" is part and parcel of the economic contraction and disenfranchisement of the commoners from any stake in the system. It is also part and parcel of the unfolding police state. It inherently means total surveillance, a permanent record of our every purchase, daydream, thought and breath. All the outrage about the NSA spying revelations actually betrays a touching naivete. With digital technology giving the government the ability to monitor our every move in real-time, is there really any reason to expect that they won't do it?
The same naivete can be seen in demands for Net neutrality—as if the enclosure of cyberspace can be staved off indefinitely. In the whole debate can be seen the bait-and-switch nature of the "digital revolution." We were lured in with the promise of greater democracy and autonomy (which in practice has more often meant the "freedom" to write without readers), until digital technology has colonized every aspect of our lives. Once the rules of the game are changed, we will be under a corporate tyranny—perhaps more insidious but no less complete (potentially more so) than the totalitarianisms of yester-century.
While the enclosure of cyberspace is an inevitability (short of socialist revolution, maybe), we of course must resist it and buy as much time and space for freedom as we can. But we must do so with a sense of realism—and a critique of the technology. And one means of resistance must be the survival of print and the written word.
Instead, the next generation will be utterly divorced from the physical act of writing with a pen, and the printed or written word will be looked on as a quaint anachronism. And there are deeper implications still than the survival of literacy and autonomous spaces for communication. The coming generation will not only be alienated from writing and reading (as these have been understood for millennia), but will accept as "normal" such things as cyber-eyewear like Google Glass and implanted chips. (Don't laugh; office workers in Sweden are already getting ID chips implanted in their hands.) This portends digital colonization of the very human organism, and the eventual transformation of the species into something post-human—a future actually welcomed by the hubristic, ultra-creepy "trans-humanists."
Ultimately it is the human race that is being made redundant.
If you are for this, we are political enemies, even if you think yourself on the "left." I wouldn't refuse to march with you over a more immediately pressing issue like Gaza or #BlackLivesMatter (as I do refuse to march with dictator-shilling sectarians and their satellite groups, who are actually closer to fascism than many of their followers know). I won't "unfriend" you on Facebook (the use of "friend" as a verb being a symptom of exactly what I'm protesting). Maybe some of you just haven't thought it through and can yet be redeemed.
Nor (contrary to the inevitable accusations) am I a "primitivist." The "primitivism" espoused by John Zerzan and his ilk is useless at best, and at worst just another flavor of pseudo-left fascism. I do not want to do away with literacy, but precisely the opposite: preserve it. And there is no going back to the Paleolithic short of massive genocide. This nonsense merely serves to delegitimize the urgently needed critique of technology.
Nor am I even a Luddite, even if in my heart of hearts I wish I were. The mere fact that I'm writing this on a computer is evidence to the contrary. I recognize that in the current global juxtaposition of forces, expanding democracy means expanding access to computers, as hateful and evil as they ultmately are. I'm not calling for a great purge, but a step back from the abyss. If you ridicule any resistance on the headlong lurch into digital dystopia, you are part of the problem.
Hang in there, Massachusetts.
This rant originally appeared on Facebook, but the author asserts complete rights to it.
Image: Tom Blackwell via Flickr
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