A Textual [/a-text-u-all/] Perspective

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Services in the cloud have supported the rise in texting and increasing reliance on visual media, prompting a worrisome textual aliteracy.
  • Does the dependence on search engines to find information and texting to communicate mark a decline in our ability to create, read, and comprehend complex information, especially texts?
  • Research on these topics belongs to specialists in cognition, anthropology, and cultural history, and to some degree experts in game theory and artificial intelligence, but IT professionals are not off the hook.
  • We need to tether some of these changes before they take on a life of their own, understanding the consequences and not pretending we don't have a vested interest in where new technologies take us.

A great many people — though not a majority yet — text each other more than they talk to each other or use e-mail (e-mail being viewed by texters as old fashioned). Texters also send visual images to each other, usually laughing and buoyant but sometimes dark and disturbing. Texters constantly use their cell phones, iPhones, iPods, or personal computing devices — which are at the center of their lives — and as a result have become masters of their affective, self-centered domains in the cloud.

Andrew Rasiej, social entrepreneur, futurist, and founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, was the keynote speaker at last year's Jenzabar Annual Meeting May 27 in Washington, D.C. In his speech he urged users to adjust to "the new town square" (represented by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) and accept the reality that written texts will disappear and visual media, which is driving our present, will become our future. Rasiej's advice was accurate, in my opinion, as I've seen the signs among my (younger) friends.

A 26-year-old family friend who is a college graduate doesn't read. Further, she is proud of this, feeling that not knowing much — at least from reading — makes her more exciting to her peers, many of whom feel the same way. She doesn't need texts except in a minimal way to function in her job. After all, she can use any of the various search engines on any of the various media platforms to find the specific information she wants. Cloud computing fits her needs nicely. If she needs to contact friends or family, she texts them, only rarely making an actual voice telephone call. Even when she goes to church, she doesn't need an actual hymnal or Bible — the words of hymns and biblical passages are displayed on big screens visible to anyone in the sanctuary. For me, this aliteracy is a concern.

Texting Verus Texts

Visual images have always been and will continue to be important in communication, but what about the changing nature of texts in this new world of technology in the cloud? People don't read longer, more deeply conceptualized texts like they once did, and texters routinely create texts that don't resemble traditional texts. Their texts contain sometimes obscure (to non-texters, anyway) abbreviations, visual constructions (emoticons), and compressed, non-elaborated statements and assertions that are not necessarily substantive, just short. Such structures are affecting our ability to write traditional texts. Most of us less consistently follow language conventions of grammar, usage, and punctuation. Is this change positive or negative? Will this change in texts that we create and read affect our ability to understand and process complex information?

If we can access everything we need from a hand-held device, we don't need a direction or focus — or do we? Too few people today have the knowledge or even the motivation to critically evaluate their thoughts, perceptions, or behaviors. Jay Leno said in an interview on the Today Show before he finished his first 17 years as the host of The Tonight Show that he thought initially the "J-Walking All Stars" segment of his show would feature people who would "study up" so they wouldn't appear ignorant on television. He quickly found that they made no such effort. I believe the reason they didn't is that the guiding assumption for many people, not just the young, is that if they need a piece of knowledge, they can find it on the web, so they don't make an effort to learn or try to remember a lot of things to begin with. With a hand-held device constantly with them, they feel no need to memorize information. They have not developed a habit of or pride in learning. I wonder about the substance of life when there is no such effort. Is life just about doing as little as possible?

Connections in the Cloud

I am concerned that the development of cloud computing will contribute to this lack of pride in learning, lack of knowledge, and decrease in critical skills. Consider, for example, a diagram in the Wikipedia entry on cloud computing labeled "Cloud computing logical diagram" that lists Google, Soho, Salesforce, and other elements in the cloud and shows how these elements are connected. What the diagram does not do is specify the nature of the relationships between and among the components and how these structures are related to other ideas in three-dimensional space or other schema in cognitive terms. These kinds of connections are necessary for thought to take place.

Regardless of the content, in any effective classroom study guides, the professors' knowledge and the students' prior learned knowledge of the content and the structure of the texts allow all participants to sort out what is important from that which can be excluded and discarded. In the urgency to create the cloud, how do software engineers deal with these connections? How do they provide the cues to relationships between elements? Is it their responsibility to do so? If they don't, how will the way all of us think change? I don't have easy or clear answers to these questions.

Research on these topics belongs to specialists in cognition, anthropology, and cultural history, and to some degree experts in game theory and artificial intelligence. IT professionals are not off the hook, however. In talking with my colleague Eric Grossman, who runs our technology/instructional integration program in the Education Division at Emory & Henry College, he came up with what I think is excellent advice for IT professionals (via e-mail!):

"You aren't just moving solutions to the cloud. You are moving intelligence to the cloud. The advent of text, particularly printing, created a new level of intelligence. A text contains a useful kind of intelligence for us. We refer to high-fidelity reproductions of text (like the bible) as a community. Will the move to cloud intelligence be as useful for us? Should we be concerned that cloud intelligence is scattered and obscured? Can we be sure that we will benefit? Are there (technical) ways that we [can] ensure that people are the beneficiaries of developing technologies?

If we don't address these concerns, I fear our students will end up like the characters in search engine commercials who spout off endless facts that have little meaningful connection to the original topic. We need to tether some of these changes before they take on a life of their own.

Robert Frost urged us in his famous poem to take "the road less traveled by," yet that idea doesn't work well here — no one knows what this new road is going to look like, nor do we have much of an idea where it leads. We all know that the world will change; that we will find new ways to communicate; and that texts probably won't disappear. For certain, we will know more about all of these changes in texts and thinking in a few years. I just hope we think carefully about what is happening while we are at this edge, as opposed only to paying attention to who will be the first to offer all that technology has to offer or, in contrast, merely passively observing what happens without appearing to have a vested interest in the results. I'm optimistic — I just pray we leap to new, unexpected heights, not down an unexpected precipice.