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Twilight of the Books?

I’ve just read an interesting article in the New Yorker titled “Twilight of the Books” [1].

It started with some depressing statistics about literacy. One comment that I couldn’t figure out concerned “the panic that takes hold of humanists when the decline of reading is discussed“. The decline in literacy concerns me because I want to live in a society where everyone can contribute as equals and where all voters have the possibility of becoming well informed about the issues that affect their vote. If literacy declines far enough then fascism seems to be the inevitable result. I’m not sure whether that makes me a humanist according to the author. Below in the second part of this post (not included in the feed) I include my dictionary definition of the word, #4 is the definition most commonly used today (which is a reasonable match for my beliefs).

There is some interesting information regarding basic research on the mental abilities of literate and illiterate people which suggests that people who an read are better at handling abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.

The article notes that spending time on the net increases academic scores for children. It also makes the interesting claim that visiting pr0n sites increases grades, I find that difficult to believe.

I wonder whether there is a difference between readers and writers in this regard. Does the typical serious net user who averages writing more than 3650 messages a year for fun (in addition to whatever email may need to be written for work) plus some blog posts and writing other web pages have different mental abilities to someone who just reads what others write? Does blogging (and other writing on your choice of topic) change your brain?

What about programmers, does spending 8 hours a day writing formal rules for hypothetical mathematical situations (which is essentially what programming is about) change your brain? Are programmers going to have greater abilities for managing abstract concepts and hypothetical situations than people who have not had such experience? NB It will be difficult to determine this as people who have such skills will find programming easier and more fun so therefore a career in programming computers is self-selecting for people with such abilities.

Another interesting fact is the results of research into the comprehension of a PowerPoint presentation. People who read it without an audio-visual accompanying it learned more and rated it as more interesting. Based on this my plan is that in future when attending conferences I will try and read papers which are presented BEFORE attending the lectures. Unfortunately most conferences which have papers presented seem based on the idea that you give a lecture about a topic as a teaser for your paper and assume that the audience knows nothing about it (conferences which don’t have papers outnumber the ones that do). Most Linux conferences seem based on the idea that almost no-one reads papers at all, they attend lectures and visit web sites and IRC channels afterwards. NB this comment is based on talking to people who attend conferences and my observations on attending conferences – it is not a criticism of any conferences merely an observation on cultural attitudes.

Based on this information it seems reasonable to provide copies of lecture notes to the audience before the lecture. For example for a typical talk that I give to a LUG I could blog the lecture notes before the meeting and email the LUG mailing-list with the URL, people who really want to learn would hear me talk AFTER reading the notes and hopefully get the best of both forms of learning.

I had been considering producing some YouTube [2] videos with instructions on how to use SE Linux. But it seems that might not be such a good idea (at least not a good enough idea to justify the amount of effort I would have to spend).

The author seems to misunderstand YouTube, it is NOT about making the Internet resemble TV (where millions of mindless drones watch content created for the lowest common denominator in the audience). The AtGoogleTalks on YouTube [3] and www.ted.com are examples of high-quality free content (comparable to the best TV documentaries – the type of content which is cited as increasing the academic results of children) and the culture of creation and discussion must be a good thing. Most TV is bad because it’s one-way communication and the quality of the content is low. YouTube videos are widely discussed in email, blogs, and other written forums. The creation of the best (and often most viewed) videos would surely involve some writing.

I wonder whether the benefits attributed to reading can be obtained without reading fiction. The nature of work is changing to require an increasing amount of reading and writing. The most menial work requires reading instruction manuals. Most of the best paid jobs involve a lot of reading and writing. If reading fiction isn’t required then it seems that there is little risk in the immediate future.

From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 [gcide]:

Humanist \Hu”man*ist\ (h[=u]“man*[i^]st), n. [Cf. F. humaniste.]
1. One of the scholars who in the field of literature proper
represented the movement of the Renaissance, and early in
the 16th century adopted the name Humanist as their
distinctive title. –Schaff-Herzog.
[1913 Webster]

2. One who pursues the study of the humanities, or polite
literature.
[1913 Webster]

3. One versed in knowledge of human nature.
[1913 Webster]

4. A person with a strong concern for human welfare,
especially one who emphasizes the dignity and worth of
individual people, rejecting claims of supernatural
influences on humans, and stressing the need for people to
achieve improvement of society and self-fulfillment
through reason and to develop human-oriented ethical
values without theism; an adherent of humanism.

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