The new literacy of television  DEC 31 2007

Late last week, Marc Andreessen pulled a quote from a New Yorker article written in 1951 about television:

The most encouraging word we have so far had about television came from a grade-school principal we encountered the other afternoon.

"They say it's going to bring back vaudeville," he said, "but I think it's going to bring back the book."

Before television, he told us, his pupils never read; that is, they knew how to read and could do it in school, but their reading ended there. Their entertainment was predominantly pictorial and auditory -- movies, comic books, radio.

Now, the principal said, news summaries are typed out and displayed on the television screen to the accompaniment of soothing music, the opening pages of dramatized novels are shown, words are written on blackboards in quiz and panel programs, commercials are spelled out in letters made up of dancing cigarettes, and even the packages of cleansers and breakfast foods and the announcers exhibit for identification bear printed messages.

It's only a question of time, our principal felt, before the new literacy of the television audience reaches the point where whole books can be held up to the screen and all their pages slowly turned.

This sounds far fetched and Andreessen belittles the prediction, but is it really that outlandish? Literacy rates in the US have risen since the advent of television (I am not suggesting a correlation) and Steven Johnson suggests in Everything Bad Is Good For You that TV is making us smarter.

If you stop thinking of TV in the specific sense as a box on which ABC, CBS, and NBC are shown and instead imagine it in the general sense as a service that pipes content into the home to be shown on a screen, the prediction hits pretty close to the mark. The experience of using the web is not so different than reading pages of words that are "held up to the screen" while we scroll slowly through them. If we can imagine that what Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush described as the "televised book" and the "memex" corresponds to today's web, why not give our high school principal here the same benefit of the doubt?

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