The End Of The Word As We Know It

It's never easy to plumb the reading habits of children, but teachers and parents perennially knock themselves out with worry over any sign of a decline. Among U.S. teenagers, reading skills haven't improved in high schools since 1999, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test. To many educators, the wild success of the "Harry Potter" books only underscores the paucity of reading in the lives of today's children, who somehow manage to find copious amounts of time for videogames, Web surfing and text messaging. "Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning," writes psychologist Jane Healy in "Endangered Minds." The lure of the visual in today's electronic media, it would seem, is proving too much for the increasingly antiquated pleasures of the written word.

What should be done? Healy and others would have us mount a vigorous campaign to restore reading to its rightful place, or risk raising a generation cut off from a rich cultural heritage. Before we jump on our high horses, however, it might be helpful to look at the conflict between visual media and the written word not so much as a battle between technology and culture, but between two technologies, each representing a different mode of communication.

It's easy to forget after all this time that writing is as much a form of technology as the Internet. Humans roamed the earth for thousands of years without language, and then for thousands more before coming up with an alphabet to represent the sounds they uttered. In his book "Orality and Literacy," the late scholar Walter Ong points out that when Homer set down the Iliad, he was adapting a long oral tradition--in which stories were passed from one speaker to the next--to a relatively new medium. In fifth-century B.C. Athens, writing and reading had become part of the culture, but it was still new enough for Plato to express skepticism. In the Phaedrus, Socrates asserts the superiority of oral argument: writing is a crutch, Plato wrote, that would lead to the decline of memory, and a passive medium that cannot defend its arguments.

It might seem that the advent of the computer is as big a change in the technology of expression as the written word was. But the real revolution may not yet have arrived. To the extent that computers merely extend the original invention of writing (by allowing the word to be published electronically), they aren't wholly new. What may come to represent a truly revolutionary mode of communicating is the visual aspect of new media--in particular, the visual interactivity of videogames. Whereas language, writing, printing, e-books and text messaging form a continuum based on the written word, videogames and their ilk appeal to a completely different part of the brain.

Visual media are, if anything, a more natural mode for humans than the written word, at least according to neuroscientist Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Evolution created Homo sapiens with a finely honed visual sense: an ability to take in the vast sweep of a landscape and pick out the smallest movement--a lion in the shadows?--or a partially hidden grove of berries. Whereas reading is a technically difficult skill that takes years to learn, our visual brains take almost effortlessly to videogames. "It's an accident that our culture invented writing and reading," says Just. "It's a cultural artifact we've developed, but it's not in the nature of man. Two hundred years from now, we won't need this medium to transmit knowledge."

Some people defend electronic media by arguing that it encourages the use of the written word on Web sites and in blogs. This may be true at the moment, but it's probably false comfort. Bigger bandwidth and greater computing power seem destined to lead to an increase of video at the expense of the written word; when teens get instant video messaging, for instance, it's hard to imagine that they'll prefer text. Does this mean that future generations will be unable to concentrate long enough to finish a novel? Perhaps. But visual media, using technologies we don't yet know about, may rise to the level of literature. Using brain imaging, Just has found that the brain takes in written and visual input differently at the level of perception, but that higher functions--following a plot, grasping irony--are the same regardless of how the brain gets the signals. The intellectual health of future generations may ride not only on whether they read books, but on whether they can come up with another medium as good, or better.