Eight years ago, I gave a keynote at a global conference hosted in Hong Kong. Next was a second keynote presenter, who started his talk by predicting that writing and reading would be extinct within four decades. Given that most in the crowd worked in education, I witnessed no small amount of skepticism, but the speaker stood firm and provided a litany of arguments and illustrations to support his claim.
The speaker didn’t want this future, but he believed it inevitable based on a careful review of cultural and technological shifts worldwide. He contended that the future would resemble pre-modern oral culture more than the culture of literacy that shaped the last fifteen hundred years. However, unlike oral culture, the value of refined human skills in memory, questioning and problem-solving, spontaneous argumentation, and rhetoric will be technology-enhanced. The argument goes that, just like traveling from one location to another is primarily technology-facilitated in the modern world, these cognitive abilities will augment or replace direct effort by the human mind or body.
Many expect that technological transformations are revolutionary. Like old Rip Van Winkle, we awake to a new world. Instead, most scholars of technology and society know that new technologies often start as a supplement, living alongside past practices. As adoption increases, technology shifts the behaviors and habits of others, eventually changing their thoughts and values. What first seemed technical soon became cultural. Given enough time and broad adoption, the technology evolves as accepted and values-neutral as wearing eyeglasses to enhance your vision.
Only no technology is value-neutral. Every technology creates winners and losers, brings benefits and downsides, and amplifies specific values while muzzling others. Our ability to recognize this fact is primarily determined by how long we’ve lived in the fishbowl of a particular technology.
Similarly, such changes influence people’s habits and practices, eventually influencing beliefs and values. In Augustine’s Confessions, there is a portion where he speaks, in amazement, about Ambrose. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page, and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent, and his tongue was still.” This sight of a person reading was recognizable and noteworthy to Augustine because he lived during a transitional period, witnessing such subtle changes in human behavior as the world moved from an oral to written culture. Today, moving your lips while reading is a potential indication that you need more literacy instruction. Yet, on the grand scale, a shift from reading aloud to silent reading is slight compared to the widespread cultural impact of various modern technologies in society.
Today, technological shifts are much faster and far more complex, multiple technologies are developing simultaneously, and the general public has essentially given up on serious, careful, prayerful consideration about the implications and how best to proceed. Instead, we comfort ourselves with the simplistic view that technology is neither good nor bad. It just depends on how you use it. If you are well-meaning in using the technology, then that is all that matters, some contend.
Such a dilemma is another reason why university life is far from irrelevant to the modern world. At its best, during college, we dedicate extra time to digging beneath the surface of such matters, asking difficult questions, seeking answers, and establishing habits of mind that will serve us well in life and future callings.
As a Christian university, we invite students to consider the profound significance and relevance of God’s Word in such matters. A “liberal arts” education initially meant this type of intellectual work. It is an education that seeks a path to liberation instead of simple servitude to the spirit of the age. It is an initiation to ask, examine, study, go deeper than we first thought possible, and then go deeper still. Then, after all of that digging, we return to our beautifully ordinary life and callings with new wisdom and gifts that we share with others.
Will these predictions of the inevitable demise of reading and writing prove true? I don’t think so. Will literacy change significantly and be influenced by emergent technology? That certainly seems to be the case in the past. As such, how might various changes influence faith, life, and learning? Or, perhaps a more critical question, inspired by Francis Shaeffer, is given these shifts and changes in the world, how shall we live as Christians?
Or, as we read in the exchange between Gandalf and Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”