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There's hope yet for writers
On short attention spans, digital illiteracy, and why the market economy may yet save the printed word
Writer Dan Brooks laments, "I think within my lifetime most Americans will become illiterate, not because they can't read but because they can't concentrate long enough to get through a whole newspaper article or book." On the surface, there's some evidence for his concern: People really do spend so much time with digital media now that it's hard to imagine the rapid-fire experience granted by smartphones and big televisions isn't chipping away at long-term concentration.
■ But...after a while the market (of all the most unexpected things) might actually offer the corrective. For most subjects -- not all, but quite certainly most -- nothing is a more efficient and more effective teaching tool than a well-written, well-edited text. Not always a textbook, but at least a booklet.
■ The written word is almost always faster than any other mode of transmitting knowledge. Consider that a mid-range reading speed for a college-level adult is around 250 words per minute, with 500 words per minute easily within the reach of faster readers. Meanwhile, the median pace of speech on television news is around 150 words per minute. That's a 67% advantage for the middle-of-the-road reader, and quicker readers are getting more than triple the content per minute than they'd get from people speaking. It's no wonder that so many people listen to podcasts at increased playback speeds.
■ As people are driven to earn more in a competitive marketplace, they become sensitive to returns on learning investments. Individuals will find themselves tired of sloppy lectures, videos with low information density, and dubious AI-generated texts. Not everyone will notice, but enough will notice to matter. And they'll "return" to reading (likely never really having left), as long as there's good writing to be found on what they want to learn. That signal going back to the market will further encourage the production of higher-quality written materials.
■ So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the market really does have the capacity to repel the drive towards digital overstimulation. It may take some time for the feedback to work its way through -- and there will undoubtedly be counter-examples along the way. Not everyone will be responsive to workplace rewards, and not everyone will find that writing-based learning works best.
■ And it may not always be obvious where the investments most matter: Editors can be as important as writers, or even more important. An old academic joke goes something to the effect of, "I wrote 500 pages because I didn't have time to write 250 pages." Revision and editing can vastly improve the final quality of a work, while simultaneously decreasing its size. These are skills not easily executed by computers, which tend to optimize for volume of output, not quality. There is, it seems, hope for the human writer after all.
Can your iPad do this? No, it cannot.