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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.