These are times when optimism is about as easy to sustain as the suspension of disbelief watching a superhero movie. I consume way too much of the media fury, so I won't add to it here. Rather, I’d like to address one small slice of the public debate, at least among those who are literate enough to ask: Are we moving into a post-literate society?
No. And here's why.
Just as there's a natural distribution of good looks, intelligence and athletic grace across the population, there's a percentage of people who like to read, absorb information and artistic expression, and formulate their own opinions from the swelter of competing views. Let's assume that the qualities described above are encouraged, for some, by spending four years in college. This means the percentage of the thoughtful and inquisitive is larger than ever: In 1940, only about five percent of the country had graduated from college. Now it’s over a third.
You’ll hear people say "Kids don’t read anymore." Tell them that books sales, in particular physical books, are growing, and much of that growth is being driven by young readers. It's true that the number of brick and mortar bookstores has declined, but that's because of Amazon and other online sources. It's a matter of distribution, not consumption, and for the purpose of my thesis here, somewhat misleading.
Journalism is another institution that is supposedly dying on the vine, and for sure, the print media is under huge duress. Though for every daily newspaper that goes under there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fresh news outlets appearing online. You may rightly assert that many, or most, are poorly managed and edited, and filled with uncurated dreck. That still leaves so much worthy and enriching information, and commentary, that you'd never be able to absorb it all.
You can make a strong case that the cretin in the White House has caused an upsurge in media consumption, however polarized individual outlets have become. Trust in the media favored by Democrats has actually improved in recent times. I submit that this is because people are paying more attention, that they're reading more. I also believe that responsible journalism, in an era of propaganda and phony news, is trying harder to keep their facts straight and their commentary thoughtfully nuanced.
A good friend of mine has a theory of the human mind: "People have a tendency to extrapolate current circumstances indefinitely into the future." Even the scantest understanding of the past ought to unburden you of this fallacy. We are, no doubt, going through some monumental changes, occurring at an unprecedented pace. This is much of the problem, since rapid change makes it feel like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. The originators of Chaos Theory, a scientific paradigm that explains the behavior of complex systems, say that nature moves from order to disorder in irregular, but relentless, cycles. They call the state between these cycles "phase transition," when things become the most chaotic.
This is where we're living today. It’s not a post-literate society, it's a society making a painful adjustment to the Information Age, finding their way through the torrent of books, articles and essays, along with posts, Tweets, online rants and blogs, just like this.
If you believe civilization is worth preserving, you have to believe that wisdom and critical thinking are essential ingredients in that preservation. Thought in isolation from information is valuable, but closed-ended. You can only go so far on your own. I maintain that the richest source of revelation and enrichment are books. Whatever form they take, physical or electronic, books will save us from annihilation, from the foolishness – economic, military, environmental, cultural – that is also an irredeemable component of the human experience.
Don't despair. Publishers are publishing, readers are reading. Thus, thinkers keep thinking.
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