Imagining the Internet (4): language

The Internet is certainly doing its part to bring down other, older forms of communication, especially the mass media. Not many people will miss the top-down, one-way, unresponsive structure of mass media culture, except those who are losing out because they can’t or won’t listen to their vanishing audiences – a phenomenon described beautifully and with an outrageous sense of humor by Bob Garfield in The Chaos Scenario (the page is here).

By contrast, if it turns out that the Internet is destroying conventional forms of linguistic expresssion, like writing everyday prose, then a lot more people are going to be upset. Actually, lots of people are already upset…

Q.4 – Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

A. By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

B. By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

[my answer: A]

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, especially when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?


“The influence of the Internet on reading and writing provokes emotionally charged reactions, particularly fears that the Internet is undermining literacy. Critics point to the sloppy writing habits many of us have developed thanks to immersion in casual forms of expression like email and texting. They discourage us from correcting typos, observing proper usages, being concerned about clarity and so on. Meanwhile, cellphones have created a whole new dialect marked by contractions like “txt msg.” My reaction is: so what?

“First, language changes whether we like it or not; and languages like English have a rich array of registers, some formal, others informal. To say that the use of text messaging is “wrong” or bad for the language is like saying the invention of Cockney rhyming slang was bad for the language. The important issue is whether or not a particular style, dialect or degree of care is appropriate to the context and the parties communicating. It has always been difficult to get inexperienced writers to work hard at seeing and maintaining such distinctions, and probably always will be.

“Second, the Internet has made knowledge-sharing a much more visual experience. This in itself may not enhance reading and writing skills. Will it diminish them? I don’t know. But we may as well get used to the fact that online life is only going to get more multimedia. Nearly every undergrad presentation I see features one or more YouTube clips. YouTube is the new Encyclopedia Brittanica, even more so than Wikipedia. As with Google’s search engine, it’s very tempting to make the video clips do the thinking and talking for you. They can enhance knowledge-sharing, as long as it’s not at the expense of the written word. They all have their place.

“Lastly, the debate about books is another hornet’s nest of controversy, centered on the form factor (will we all be using e-books?), copyright (Google again) and business (will the quality book publishers slowly die off?). I think the books problem resolves into two issues for 2020. Will big ideas still be captured in complex, intriguing media objects we can procure and enjoy? No doubt. Will the conventional book publishing industry be left standing? No. I don’t see why they won’t be disintermediated in the same way that music and broadcasting are being disintermediated. That’s making a lot of people anxious. But anxiety over the future of books shouldn’t be confused with anxiety over the future of book publishing.”