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.