Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A brief history of reading

One measure of the positive development of a country is its literacy rate. The more people who are competent in reading, writing and arithmetic, the greater chance of a better quality of life is the general belief.

In the not-too-distant past, such abilities were the preserve of a select, influential elite. The invention of the printing press gradually began to change this as the written word became available to a greater number of people. The more rapid diffusion of texts coupled with an increase in the audience for such works saw this medium rise to a position of prominence, arguably greater than that of the spoken word and images.
The tendency for us to carry around electronic devices rather than books these days isn't necessarily a bad thing ...
You still have to be able to read a bit to play Mario. (Image from web.)
Over the last century and a half or so, a host of interlinked technological developments and a greater access to education have seen a dramatic upturn in global literacy levels, further enhancing the importance of the written word.

Yet, what we have seen of late is not a 'triumph of text' but rather a return to what could be viewed as more ancient times where the 'image is king' for the masses, in a very different format albeit.

For some this is portrayed as a 'dumbing down' of society. Examples given to support this viewpoint are YouTube videos of very little, if any, educational or social value that go viral, 'silly' TV soap operas and even computer games. In this sphere, it's very much a case of following the money trail.

Nonetheless, however dismissive we may be of the above, it can't be said that they represent a return to some sort of Dark Ages. They are part of an age where people have access to a vast array of information at the touch of a button  empowering or otherwise as this may be.

Indeed, thanks to the internet, self-learning capabilities have increased exponentially, be that with videos and commentary via YouTube or simply having access to an enormous amount of written sources in seconds. Of course, there's no guarantee that such learning will be completely balanced and impartial, especially considering that we tend to find material that compliments our own biases. Then again, the same can be said for more traditional educational outlets.

What's more, given the changed landscape as regards where and how people source information, even if people are reading less books (a US study this year suggests a slight fall in the last number of years), this doesn't mean they're becoming 'less enlightened/intelligent'. For one, in the majority of the world literacy rates have never been higher.

So while not all of us are reading voluminous tomes, our understanding of issues is, or at least should be, better than in previous times. In this regard, at least the foundations for a questioning, more forward thinking human race are there, however individuals and distinct societies might actually turn out given whatever other conditions are at play at the time.

That last point still carries much weight. We'd like to think that with high literacy rates alongside the ability to self-teach and question long-held yet flawed beliefs, the acceptance to wage war along religious and ethnic lines would be on the wane significantly. Alas, despite the world being as interconnected as it ever has been, this isn't quite the case.

Perhaps that simply comes down to an innate human trait: we'll always find a reason to go to war, no matter how educated, enlightened or well-read we may be. And there'll always be people ready to fight those wars.

So while the power of the book is perhaps waning, the return with a vengeance of images/pictures as master of the masses is not necessarily a backward step. They are being presented to a more knowledgeable population in what are obviously much changed times. What haven’t changed that much are our debilitating animal instincts.
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