There’s no evidence for a link between a decline in writing standards and texting. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty
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No, the internet is not destroying our ability to read and spell

If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. The internet just makes our pre-existing mistakes far more visible.

Immediacy is the attribute that most defines the internet. Everything, from shopping to films to pornography, lies, as the cliché has it, just a click away. Online life also brings us into close proximity with the opinions of others – friends, family and total strangers alike. It’s not always pretty of course, generally a reminder that people have a tendency to stupidity, that is often amplified by its appearing in black and white; what would ordinarily be laughed off down the pub as benign ignorance and quickly forgotten is taken a great deal more seriously when couched in the discursive context of an online debate, however inane that debate might be. (And one needn’t throw the first stone either – given the proliferation of opinion online it is likely we have all at least once in our life posted a comment on an internet forum that we wouldn’t care to stand over.)

Officialdom (and its officious henchmen) has long afforded the written word greater importance than the spoken variety, partly out of social prestige but often out of practicality – people, businesses and bureaucracies request something “in writing” to have a documented record of a commitment or an attestation. And not everyone, to be sure, writes to the same degree of elegance or ability. Texting (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) has been the main bugbear of those Jeremiahs, who bewail falling standards in spelling, grammar and literacy. The reality is, however, that successive studies in various cultural contexts around the world have shown there to be no correlation between a decline in writing standards and SMS use. Standards have remained fairly constant. It is simply that the internet and social media have made what errors there are in spelling and punctuation far more visible these days. If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. Until two decades ago, the majority of people, once their formal schooling was over, rarely wrote anything longer than a shopping list or a Christmas card, and rarely was what they wrote intended for a readership of more than a handful of people. That has all changed, and the information revolution affords people greater opportunity to write on a regular basis, and, of course to expose what they write, good and bad, to a greater audience. Minority languages like Irish have found new life in written form online and Cantonese, previously thought of as beneath literary use even by its native speakers, who opted for written Putonghua instead, has, thanks to social media, blossomed into a living written language, and has been emblematic of the current protests in Hong Kong. If the internet has made people their own bureaucrats, it has also made them, in however fanciful a way, their own poets, journalists and chroniclers. 

Illiteracy is a different thing entirely. If you want a gauge for how reading and writing standards are falling or rising, the internet is not really the place to look, because the truly functionally illiterate are not present there. They are generally hidden, in official statistics as well as in society – wealthy countries usually trumpet 99 per cen literacy rates, but the sole metric used, by the CIA handbook, for instance, is people aged 15 or over having completed five or more years of schooling (UNESCO’s yardstick for youth literacy is slightly more demanding). The estimates for adult illiteracy in industrialised societies tend to be as high as 20 per cent (the National Literacy Trust puts the figure for England at 16 per cent). Many of these are people who slipped through the net of the education system and others whose reading and writing ability has declined through disuse – more than half of adult illiterates in France are over the age of 45. Two thirds of those adult illiterates are men, which is itself a direct inversion of the worldwide gender imbalance in illiteracy rates, where two thirds of those that cannot read or write are women. 

One is rarely exposed to illiteracy in everyday life – many of those who genuinely struggle manage to keep it a secret to all but family and close friends. In my bartending days, I once checked myself when a customer asked, during a particularly busy rush what beers we served (there were no brand logos on the taps to help him out) and I impatiently pointed to the chalkboards overhead. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t able to read them and, embarrassed, I made time to run through them with him. Occasionally I will be stopped by someone on the streets of Paris, pointing to an address on a computer print-out they are looking for but which they are not able to make out. They are invariably sub-Saharan Africans perfectly fluent in French, but this doesn’t mean that that social group are the most likely to be unlettered – at least 75 per cent of adult illiterates in France are native-born, having grown up speaking French alone. It is just that an immigrant’s straitened circumstances mean he or she cannot afford to go to lengths to hide his or her inability to read in the same way a native can. 

France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron recently caused an uproar when, in his first media interview after taking the job, he remarked that workers facing lay-offs in a factory in Brittany would have trouble finding other jobs because of illiteracy. Macron was not wrong (some 20 per cent of the workers in the factory were believed to have reading difficulties) but the blitheness of his comments was understandably wounding. The insensitivity of his remarks are symptomatic of the difficulty any educated person would have empathising with an illiterate person’s predicament. 

Most people these days agree that raising literacy standards can only be a good thing – though there are, of course, those of an authoritarian bent who disagree, like former Portuguese dictator Salazar, who saw a literate peasantry as a threat to his rule, and the Taliban, who take violent exception to girls being educated. Still, even in countries as unfree as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, literacy, if not always part of a fully rounded education, is certainly taken seriously. In China, Mao even simplified the alphabet to make it easier for the peasantry to learn how to read, albeit depriving the written language of much of its richness. Traditional Chinese now survives only in the spheres which were then out of the PRC’s control – Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong. It certainly doesn’t follow that literacy will, in of itself, bring about freer societies, nor, as we have seen, does it have comprehensive reach even in wealthy liberal democracies. It does, of course, make economic sense, both for individuals and societies, for people to be able to read and write. It is for this reason that “benefit of clergy” existed in times past, where someone would be spared the death penalty if they could read – a valuable economic commodity. Playwright Ben Jonson was one such beneficiary, escaping hanging for manslaughter in 1598 because of his education. This benefit had originally come about to give clerics the right to be tried by an ecclesiastical court but it was later modified to benefit anyone who could prove their literacy, reflective of the gradual “democratisation” of the educational franchise. 

Increased literacy, no doubt, ultimately has its cultural impact, as Richard Hoggart’s most famous work attested (as did the success of the very Pelican imprint which published it), and, as Dickens observed in Our Mutual Friend, “no one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot”. Still, literacy, once again, will not necessarily lead to cultural bounty – there are plenty of places in the world where most people can read or write but remain largely unmoved by things cultural. Literacy is not even a prerequisite for culture, as much of it predates mass literacy. The great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré never learned to read or write yet he was a tireless campaigner for education as mayor of his native village – in developing countries, it is often illiterate parents who are the most eager for their children to learn to read and write. But even literate parents in Western countries worry about their offspring – the older generation hail Harry Potter and the Twilight books as the cavalry rescuing teenagers from certain ignorance fostered by TV, video games and the internet. I tend to agree with Tim Parks that such books aren’t really a gateway drug for weightier literature, and neither do I think that reading would all of a sudden die out among younger people if it weren’t for J K Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Illiteracy is a real problem for many adults (and children too) but it is engendered mostly by being locked into an environment where reading or the encouragement of it is absent. If your children are getting anywhere near books without having to step into a schoolroom, you need not worry too much, any more than that texting will destroy their ability to spell.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood