Bad idea: Writing off reading

Contrary to the expectations of some, the internet has boosted the written word

"The fact is that people don't read any more," sniffed Apple's Steve Jobs to the New York Times back in 2008, dismissing the newly released Amazon Kindle in one damning phrase. But oh, how quickly things move on in the world of technology.

Now, Apple's own e-book reader is rumoured to be on its way, and arriving soon. And a study produced by the University of California, San Diego reports that the number of words the average American reads, a figure in decline for so long, trebled between 1980 and 2008.

The study looks at US consumption of various media, ranging from newspapers and television to computer games and smartphones. In total, the study's authors, Roger E Bohn and James E Short, found that Americans spend almost 12 hours a day consuming the equivalent of 100,500 words a day by these methods. Print media, which at the start of the 1980s accounted for 12 per cent of the information Americans consumed, now account for just 9 per cent. But another medium has swung the measure back in favour in the written word.

The turnaround is due, as you might have guessed, to the internet. Despite the popularity of YouTube, podcasts, computer games and online TV - and at odds with the common and firmly held belief that the internet is used mostly for looking at porn - the San Diego report finds that the alphabet is still the preferred way to share information online. The US devotes just over three-quarters of its time online to text; the internet accounts for "a full third" of words consumed.

What kind of information those words are conveying is another matter, however. Bohn and Short find that nearly 35 per cent of internet activity is emailing (whereas in 1980, they snigger, "fax was the hot new way to send messages"). A further 30 per cent is spent browsing, an activity that usually involves spending less than ten seconds on any given web page. The picture which emerges is less about world literature finding exciting new methods of transmission, and more about ways to tell as many people as possible, in as few words as you can, how nice the Twix you just finished was.

But all is not lost. A report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of Americans who had read at least one "literary book" in the previous year had increased for the first time in a quarter-century: from 46.7 per cent in 2002 to 50.2 per cent. These figures might not suggest an emergent nation of Clive Jameses, but they do indicate that reading and writing aren't at death's door just yet. As Bohn and Short point out in another of their humorous asides, video never did "kill the radio star". The written word is changing, but it's probably safe.


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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation