Study: Rumors of Written-Word Death Greatly Exaggerated

Americans' print consumption has declined since 1960 but words delivered by computer have more than made up the difference.

Americans’ print consumption has declined since 1960, but words delivered by computer have more than made up the difference. (Image courtesy of the University of San Diego’s Global Information Industry Center)

Conventional wisdom holds that YouTube, videogames, cable TV and iPods have turned us away from the written word. Glowing streams of visual delights replaced paper and longhand letters shrank to bite-sized Facebook status updates, the theory held. Conventional wisdom, in this case, is wrong.
A large-scale study by the University of San Diego and other research universities revealed what some of us have long suspected: We’re reading far more words than we used to as we adopt new technologies.
“Reading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, tripled from 1980 to 2008, because it is the overwhelmingly preferred way to receive words on the Internet,” found a University of San Diego study (.pdf) published this month by Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short of the University of San Diego.
Americans consumed 3.6 billion terabytes of information last year, averaging 11.8 hours of information consumption per day. Video and videogames constituted 55 percent of those bytes, but on average, Americans read 36 percent of the 100,500 words they consume each day, according to the San Diego study, which analyzed more than 20 data sources. The study doesn’t cover writing, but a simple glance at Facebook feeds reveals that we’re almost certainly writing more than we used to, as well.
Admittedly, posting “OMG best pizza ever C U l8r” to a mix of strangers, friends and acquaintances is not the same as carrying on a lengthy epistolary relationship.
“The Internet is about the death of the written word as a means of exchange and a store of value,” writes Sam Vaknin, Ph.D., in a typical criticism. “As a method of conveying information, written words are inefficient and ambiguous…. Sounds and images are far superior … thus, textual minimalism is replacing books and periodicals.”
However, that “textual minimalism” sure adds up fast — especially considering that a decent percentage of status updates include links to longer blog posts and articles. No matter how you slice it, this San Diego study found text to be a bigger part of our lives than it was 30 years ago, when much of the internet was a mere gleam in Al Gore’s eye.
In addition, longer formats continue to be popular, despite increases in textual minimalism, competing sources of information and the general shrinkage of print magazines and newspapers — see Ars Technica’s 23-page review of Mac OS X 10.6 (1,447 Diggs, 142 on Reddit), or Glenn Greenwald’s lengthy opinion pieces (430 comments), neither of which would likely have been published by a print publication.
Meanwhile, Amazon, which seems to sell everything under the sun — including videogames, cameras and television sets — announced on Saturday that the Amazon Kindle, an eBook reader, became “the most gifted item ever in [Amazon] history” during this year’s holiday season.
The most gifted item during next year’s holiday season could well be Apple’s “iSlate” tablet, assuming rumors of its impending 2010 release are true. Say what you will about the literacy level of tweets or texts, but the position that literacy is on the decline is untenable when the most-hyped device of next year is said to be designed with free and paid-for electronic text — especially magazines — in mind.
If you’re reading thousands of words a day on a variety of devices, paper included, you need as much help as you can get in deciding which words to read. Ironically, the same technologies derided by some for contributing to a lack of literacy — Facebook and Twitter — are full of recommendations of things to read.
Technology may have truncated and warped the written word in some cases, while increasing competition for our time. But as borne out by this new data, technology hasn’t found a substitute for the written word as a means of conveying certain types of information. And, in fact, it has made reading and writing even more essential parts of everyday life.

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