Some interesting articles have been published recently bemoaning the perils of the internet. They tend to fall into two topical camps: reading and thinking. This New York Times piece, “Online, R U Really Reading?” describes changing reading patterns among the first truly digital generation, and provides a useful summary of the debate between those who believe young people’s preference for reading online material to reading books bodes ill for the literacy of future generations, and those who believe it’s simply a reflection of changing reading habits rather than a decline, and nothing to worry about.
The internet’s influence on the way we think is a more insidious consequence of the changing reading patterns the first article describes. Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has been much-referenced since its publication in the current issue of The Atlantic. Like Carr, I worry about whether my online reading choices – to read or print out articles from a range of publications, to monitor my favourite website, Arts & Letters Daily, to read and digest as much as possible in as short a period as possible – has led to my sagging interest in the novel. I seem to read less fiction than ever, but can’t figure out if it’s because I’m getting more picky as I age, or whether I cannot muster the required level of concentration and chunk of time that a novel demands.
What will be interesting to watch over the next few decades is the impact of the internet on public discourse, on personal communication, and on individual concentration spans. Who knows if these things can ever be tested in any reliable way. Anecdotally, however, I can already testify to a staggering lack of interest in grammar and punctuation among young people who claim to want to write. Last year at one of Susan Shapiro’s New York workshops on writing articles for publication, I was surrounded by people younger than 30, whom I usually have little to do with. Week after week enthusiastic pups turned up and distributed printouts of their material for their classmates to critique, which were full of spelling mistakes, syntactical errors, apostrophes missing or in the wrong place, with barely a comma in sight. Sentences were half-formed, and paragraphs scattered their pages like leaves falling without a care as to the order in which they landed. All these young writers were expecting others to read their work, but seemed to lack the capacity to read their own work for consistency and clarity. Only a good reader can be a good writer.
It was during Shapiro’s workshop that I began to wonder if our literacy was changing in relation to our interaction with the online environment. Could text-messaging, email communication, emoticons and internet shortcuts have combined to create an impression among the digital generation that punctuation, spelling and grammar are no longer part of being literate?