The Electronic Telegraph
Tues 28th October 1997
Computers have yet to replace paper volumes, but bibliophile Paul Fisher argues that the cerebral quality of reading is threatened by new technology
The collapse of literacy has been a consistent strand of literary futurism. Here's a typical example from The Machine Stops: "Thanks to the advance of science... all the old literature, with its praise of Nature and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child." In this story one remaining book, a "survival from the age of litter", is a cross between instruction manual and Bible.
No surprise, then, that the tale ends in apocalypse. What's remarkable is that E.M. Forster was writing before the First World War to predict the "faint glow" of screens (he called them plates) linked by "pneumatic post" and telephones. He also anticipated the tone of later sci-fi dystopias.
Forster's short story has many echoes in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, published in 1995. Physical necessities arrive at the push of a button and isolated individuals with silly names (Forster: Vashti and Kuno; Stephenson: Dr X and John Hackworth) survive shattered families to challenge an automated totalitarian world.
Stephenson tells of an illiterate underclass who understand only mediaglyphs pumped at them through ubiquitous screens. Little Nell, an orphan, is fortunate: her brother steals a book prepared by a nanotechnologist to educate a daughter of the ruling caste in old questioning and subversive ways. The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a speaking book (never, in Stephenson's book, an interactive computer) which teaches Nell to read and then think for herself.
The fantastic, sprawling narrative is a book about books and central to it is one character's observation that "a book is different - it is not just a material possession but the pathway to an enlightened mind and thus to a well ordered society". Thus a writer billed as "hottest postcyberpunk" is close in spirit to E.M. Forster, one of the century's hottest liberal prose stylists.
The Machine Stops was a "reaction to the earlier heavens of H.G. Wells". Later heavenly visions, which suggest that computers are somehow superior to books, demand fresh reaction. In comparing computers and books the author Malcolm Bradbury is spot on when he says that if matches had been invented after cigarette lighters, we'd have marvelled at the improvement.
Just imagine the nonsense if computers were old tech and books promised connection to new forms of literacy. Minor royals might secure online space warning how young minds would overload when education wasn't delivered in brightly illustrated screen gobbets. Teachers would demand days off for book familiarisation. Lawyers would find clients suffering page turner's thumb and summon traditionalists to trace a text-scrolling lineage back to ancient Egypt.
Converts to the book, if they could be dragged from its pleasures, would scorn bulky electronic papyrus with its hum, flicker and tendency to go wrong. Tame academics, their departments of Concurrent Thinking dependent on subsidies from foreign publishers, would announce proof positive that books are read straight through. Guarantees of increased productivity would ooze from Book User magazine.
Most of the propaganda, dazzled by newness, has run the other way. The reasoning is seductive, stating that electronic text is a change comparable to the invention of printing and that therefore a new renaissance is already nearly completed. It ignores that shifts in consciousness take generations and such rhetoric falls into the trap of chronocentricity, the egotism that one's own generation sits on the very cusp of history.
Take this treasure from Mighty Micro, a book from 1979 where Christopher Evans argued that computers would soon be smaller, cheaper and less "passive" than the antediluvian thing he was actually writing: "The 1980s will see the book as we know it, and as our ancestors created and cherished it, begin a slow and steady slide into oblivion."
So far, so wrong. Reading anything lengthy on a screen is such a miserable experience that most never do it and, in any case, the organisation of what resides in computers encourages people to dip into text.
Techno-proselytisers have extracted virtue here by claiming that inherent flightiness leads to new forms of narrative and imaginative space. But there's nothing new about "non-linearity". Lots of books have never been read from beginning to end - most religious texts, all dictionaries and many poetry collections spring to mind. What is new is not so much the branchings of hypertext as that computers don't invite the joined-up thinking of reading anything right through.
Computers, in fact, have stimulated book sales by cutting production costs. Add this to clever retailing and the expansion of higher education and the number of books being published is escalating. The Publishers' Association estimates book sales worth £2.9 billion one year, and £3.3 billion the next. In 1995 100,000 new books were published, 15,000 more than in 1994, and an increase to coincide with the number of new titles George Orwell said were published in 1938. By these measures we're more bookish, if not more literate, than ever before.
All this is to labour the point that paper remains a prime place to store what is most important to our culture. The book's physical superiority makes it a spiritual object too and this places literacy, the power to get at what's in books, as the most vital of skills. So the pressing question is whether computers, and technology generally, threaten literacy in ways that much science fiction suggests.
Gunther Kress, a professor at the Institute of Education, identifies what I reckon is a threat. "Our world has become more visual," he says. "What is learned and taught is being presented as pictures." His analysis of ever more highly illustrated science textbooks over the past 30 years tells him we're being nudged toward a visual literacy.
There are plenty of other examples. Dorling Kindersley has achieved 40 million book sales by making text take second place to pictures and obsessive design. DK, which is also a successful CD-Rom publisher, calls the approach "lexigraphics" and the art of lexigraphics is equally apparent in newspapers. Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror, was explicitly unliterary when he relaunched his paper, saying: "There will rarely be text on page one in the future. We will go for impact and image."
Every newspaper must go for impact and image. The closest example to hand is that half the page you're reading is given over to pictures and white space on the principle that if it were all text nobody would look at the article, let alone read it. That is radically different from 30 years ago.
Fragmenting of text owes much to film and TV whose techniques of fast cutting play on the emotions rather than the intellect. Kress suggests computer screens accelerate the process because they too are "visual objects" whereas lines of text in a book "are representative of a stream of sound". What we get from screens, even when they're showing text only, is more akin to image than words.
However, the professor won't be drawn into assertions that books are better than computers. He talks of "new forms of rationality" and new jobs, like landing a 747 or foreign exchange dealing, that are absolutely dependent on computers. "You can't say this work isn't intellectual or rational. Literacy has real advantages and may have had absolute advantages in the past," he says. "Visualisation may have advantages in the future. We're in an information economy and I don't think books and reading are best for management of information."
Information by itself is not knowledge, a cliché that the education establishment seems to ignore in favour of a voodoo belief that children will learn from exposure to computers as if by osmosis. Some more statistics tell the story. The Department for Education says schools' spending on computers has risen from £90 million in 1991/92 to £125 million in 1993/94 to £132 million in 1995/96. The Publishers' Association says expenditure on textbooks has fallen from £209 million in 1993 to £204 million in 1994 to £195 million in 1995.
You may argue that books are cheap, computers expensive and comparisons mean little. Orwell said he spent more on cigarettes than books and Ruskin before him said "we, as a nation" spent more on horses than books. However books v computers in education is absolutely pertinent because their purposes intersect: they're to teach children what will be enjoyable and useful when they're adults.
There's little evidence that computers deliver a return on educational investment comparable to books. Nobody claims they have improved exam results. Those academics who study computers in schools usually belong to educational computing departments and have an obvious interest in boosterism. American research suggests the move away from traditional techniques is tending to dumb down thinking rather than expand it. However there is an orthodoxy, well expressed by the education minister Kim Howells, who said: "If kids are not computer-literate, it's almost as bad as them being illiterate or innumerate."
Why? Learning to read and do sums is difficult and takes ages. Learning to work a computer is dead easy and getting easier. Meanwhile, swathes of the work-force over 30 use computers without ever having touched one at school, and what earns them their wages is not basic computer literacy but skills in design or medical research or finance or whatever.
The most difficult part of computing is programming, and schools hardly touch this part of computer literacy for the good reason that it's a specialised skill, like brain surgery, which is best left to latter stages of education. That leaves typing as the main computer skill and schools could teach that on equipment of similar cost to teaching woodwork and cookery.
Instead, as in other areas of society, computers dominate discussion. That being so, we should perhaps listen to sci-fi doom sayers with nothing to sell but stories warning of worlds where mediaglyphs and icons and other imagery tramples the power of the word.