Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

iPods and Declining Literacy

By Dennis D. McDonald

I had mixed feelings watching this week’s announcement of the video iPod.

On the one hand I don’t think you can fail to be impressed by the technology packed into this new device, especially when you understand the infrastructure that supports the distribution of content that can be used with it. Even if you have no interest in a $1.99 download of “Desperate Housewives,” the future potential for such devices when coupled with Internet based distribution systems is amazing. Cable TV companies should be concerned as they fumble with their awkward “on demand” services. 

My other reaction is less positive. The iPod and devices like it, while Apple points us towards a world with significantly more variety in available media, are fundamentally devices for storing and transmitting audio and video, not text. Podcasting has developed into a “delayed radio on demand” service, and I’m sure that “video podcasting” will evolve similarly.

One fly in the ointment is the incompatibility of DRM (digital restructions management or digital rights management - take your pick) schemes that are becoming available. Whatever your political views of issues like copyright enforcement, circumvention of copy protection, and the RIAA, the practical effects of current DRM confusion are similar to a situation where, Ford and General Motors cars required different types of gasoline, requiring the setup of two entirely separate but parallel distribution schemes to support similar but incompatible engines. (Following the analogy, European and Chinese cars might also require separate gasoline and refining systems as well to support their own brands of DRM).

While I remain hopeful that DRM incompatibility will not kill off the distribution of standard audio CD’s (as I fear it is currently doing) my more profound concern is the effect that iPods and similar devices will have on literacy.

I have always been amazed, for example, at the low information content of TV news broadcasts. A one minute story on an evening TV news show, accompanied by images that may or may not actually help communicate the content, could probably be broadcast on radio in voice only form in less than half the time. A text only version of the same story could probably be scanned and read online or on paper in ten seconds or so. (I am not aware of any research along these lines - I’m just making these numbers up for the sake of argument.)

Following this logic, a wholesale movement to media literacy as opposed to text literacy for the communication of news and information may actually be a move towards a LESS informed public since the time and effort involved to stay informed is actually INCREASED by moving towards audio and video media. When this happens, we may see that total information intake on an individual basis may actually be reduced, not increased.

And I haven’t written anything at all here about what happens to the ability to read and appreciate the great books or the ability to write a decent business letter (or email).

Admittedly I am one of the dwindling few that reads a local newspaper on a daily basis; that puts me in the dinosaur class. And I’m certainly not saying that I don’t appreciate the ability to receive news on the radio (I love listening to C-SPAN while walking the dog).

But the amazing potential for video-iPod-class devices and distribution systems suggests that the universal availability of user selectable programming of audio and video programming is nearer than we think.

As evidenced by the fact that college students now regularly use PowerPoint for creating reports, our culture’s continued de-emphasis on reading and text-oriented literacy seems to be inevitable. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or, are we just moving towards a different form of literacy?

I don’t know if it’s possible to answer these questions objectively. I do believe that, time wise, TV news broadcasts can be grossly inefficient in promoting an awareness of what’s going on in the world. That fact has me worried about declining literacy just as much as what is happening to the ability to read and appreciate Shakespeare.

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