Liberating the Wheat from the Chaff

In the first years of the World Wide Web, players in traditional media pooh-poohed the Internet, saying it was little more than a dogpile. They were quite wrong… — but not completely wrong.

Back when I wrote the “Wisdom of the Language“, I actually predicted this, indicating that the Web was historically characterized by its academic legacy and North American population — and also saying that more and more of all the world’s “masses” would be coming online over the coming years.

I have seen my predictions in this regard largely vindicated, and the process will still continue for some time to come. In a few years, being considered literate (i.e., achieving a certain level of literacy that is considered useful for business activity as well as also other activities) will be roughly equivalent with being able to use the Internet.

Yet what has happened to the overall ability of those who are already using the Internet since the Internet became recognized as a viable media channel is — more or less: nothing. There are vastly more people using the Internet today than there were 10 years ago, but their level of literacy has hardly advanced at all. To put this into perspective very simply: In the past decade, the Internet has become yet another¬†mass media channel. Whereas one or two decades ago, mass media channels were predominantly “traditional media” such as television stations, radio stations and newspapers, today Google and Facebook are just as much mass media channels as are national television networks or newspapers… — in some ways they are even more international than traditional international media channels which have traditionally also aspired to have such a global reach.

The reason main reason why the Internet has not become a “two-way” or “interactive” media channel the way many had predicted is that the people who got online still by and large lack the basic literacy skills needed to be able to write online. The large multinational corporations operating in online media (such as Google) have basically stepped in to become scribes for people who lack the literacy skills to write without the aide of such a paternalistic “big brother” organization on which they so strongly depend. As such, Google today screens what its users are allowed to see throughout most of the world — and this not only affects illiterate individuals, but also most global businesses run by groups of people who are even more illiterate (mostly because most of the senior management of such global / multinational corporations never learned how to use computers effectively).

As a result: Much of the world today is as dependent on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Weibo — and maybe another handful of such companies which offer services to these illiterate masses — as people were dependent on the scribes hundreds and thousands of years ago; much in the same that “new media” companies do today,¬† traditional “scribe services” offered traditional writing services to the illiterate masses in earlier times.

Five centuries ago, Martin Luther pleaded with princes and kings to establish libraries and schools, in order to teach the masses traditional literacy skills.

Today, governments are very reluctant to do the same. On the contrary: Some governments have even declared it a crime for government officials to visit some websites. In other words, not only the masses, but governments are even prohibiting the use of basic online literacy skills within government organizations themselves — let alone educating people how to use “new media” technology.

The ineptitude of backwards oriented governments is leading some people to acquire these skills on their own. Presently, it seems as though the vast masses of illiterate people will only be able to acquire basic literacy skills through their own initiative and/or through the initiative of family and/or friends who are willing to share these skills in a “peer to peer” manner.

If this continues for several more decades, then I could see new schools and universities arising outside of the walls of traditional institutions of higher learning. Although I will probably never experience that in my own lifetime, I can imagine that my children might experience something like that… or perhaps my children will be among the ones to reform the outdated educational systems and establish better systems of education — systems which actually teach such basic literacy skills to everyone.

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