Are we losing the art of the written word?

Listen to the podcast.

Millennials are reading more than previous generations - not only on their smartphones and tablets, but books as well.  At the same time, written communication through text messages, Tweets, and the like are booming.  But they rely increasingly on brevity, lack of punctuation, abbreviation and even visual hieroglyphs (emojis) in place of words themselves. 

In an upcoming sold-out Global Leadership Series, a panel of experts in linguistics, digital communication and reading, will explore whether technological and cultural changes are threatening or strengthening the written word. We caught up with the panellists to ask for their perspectives on the impact of new technology on communication.


Laptop communication

In what ways is new technology shaping communication?

One of the most distinctive things about humans is that we create technologies for storing information outside our bodies: on gravestones, in libraries, on social media platforms. From typewriters to chatbots writing and technology are always in a dynamic relationship. New technologies don’t necessarily displace writing and reading from our lives, but rather stimulate the creation of new kinds of public, and intimate, writing cultures”

Dr Nicholas Carah
Deputy Head of School of Communication and Arts

Evolution of technology

How is communication evolving in the wake of rapid technological change?

"Five thousand years ago the Etruscans developed writing. Before that time direct communication had been limited by how loudly you could shout. But writing changed things in two radical ways. It freed up memory space, allowing human intellect to become more creative and artistic. And it allowed the fruits of human thinking to be recorded and passed on to people who might not be in the same place, or time, as the writer. Without the technology of writing we would still be primitive farmers, or perhaps still hunter-gatherers. 

"No more than a third of the world’s current 6,900 languages have been written down. And they are the the ones that have prospered, and have been the engines of scientific discovery, and advances in art, society and culture, especially written and literary culture. These activities have been enormously energized by new writing technologies. The first of these was the printing press in Europe in the 15th century, which hugely increased literacy and access to written records and writing. Then the typewriter in the USA in the 19th century, permitting fast legible composition and transcription. Then the computer and word processing; and finally the internet and the almost universal distribution of, and access to, written and multimedia materials. 

"We have, at the beginning of the 21st century, become besotted with writing. A tsunami of writing – personal, artistic, intellectual, political, social – engulfs us. And how do we write? Some still have and use pens and paper. Pretty well everyone, at least in the first world, has a keyboard. And increasingly we are fixated on our screens. 

How well is the art of writing faring in the middle of this welter of text? In either its technology or creative senses? How much longer will we continue to make writing with the art of our hands – in other words, digitally?"

Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex OAM, Chevalier des Palmes Académiques
A former Professor of Russian at the University of Melbourne, and of Applied Language Studies at The University of Queensland, Roly is spending his 'retirement' in research projects on language, communication and pain, oh and taking your calls at the ABC on the linguistic mindfield that is language.


Laptop reading

Is digital technology changing the way we read? 

"Like many people, I am haunted by the pervasive argument that those born into a digital age have lost the ability as well as the desire to read or write long-form text, but I am encouraged by the research of neuroscientist and literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf into how the brain learns to read.

"The brain that learns to read long-form text, she explains, is being displaced by the screen-reading brain. Instead of developing the capacity for deep, contemplative engagement with a text, the screen-reading brain learns to scan, to click from platform to platform, site to site, page to page in its urgent quest for instantly available information.

"As both a lover and a teacher of literature, I cannot stand by as the long-form reading brain is selected out in favour of one better suited to a digital environment, but at the same time I'd sooner kill than lose my internet access. Wolf's solution lies in the infinite plasticity of the brain: expertise in one kind of reading need not preclude expertise in another. Our ethical responsibility is to provide an environment in which the digital age's brain can evolve to be biliterate."

Dr Judith Seaboyer 
Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, School of Communication and Arts

UQ Alumni Book Fair

For those interested in exploring the wonders of reading for themselves, Alumni Friends of UQ are holding their 21st biennial UQ Alumni Book Fair and Rare Book Auction May 3-6 2019 at the UQ Centre Exhibition Hall in St Lucia. 

More than 200,000 books, DVDs, LPs, magazines and videos will be for sale at these volunteer-run initiatives with all proceeds going towards student scholarships and other deserving areas.