The controversy is a sign of our times. Too many people know too much about specifics and too many people know too little about the basics. What I mean is: concepts like Orwell’s doublespeak and Chomsky’s manufactured consent are widely known enough to provoke people to consider them, but too often the same people who know these concepts can’t really understand their meanings and implications. On the other hand, too many people don’t know enough (vocabulary included) to get the message of a complex text. This drives the controversy.
I have recently read an article about how many Germans are functionally illiterate (or downright illiterate). Actual figures are about 14% of the adult population, excluding immigrants. That’s a very large percentage for a developed country like Germany. I suspect the actual figures for the USA are higher (I won’t even mention my own country, because that would be ridiculously unnecessary, but I guess you know what I mean).
Aside the functionally illiterate, there are many people who are barely literate, they can read and write but they don’t really like reading or writing. Extrapolating from the figures I know from my country, this kind of literacy is at least two times more prevalent than full literacy. This means that this public is, actually, the majority of the voters in a democracy and the majority of the readership in any context.
This is not something new, this is nothing the“decadence” of mankind. If we had been collecting data from the last dozen decades we would, probably, find out that these numbers are slowly shrinking instead of rising. But they will never really become a small minority, because we can’t force people to enjoy reading and writing. People have different preferences: some like maths, some don’t. Some like to dance, some don’t. Some like working out, some (like me) are lazy. Some men like women, some like other men. That variety is part of what makes mankind colourful and rich.
What has changed, perhaps, is that in the past these people who don’t like reading or writing were hardly ever forced to do it. You could lead an entire life without writing an essay, or reading an entire book. You could limit yourself to grocery store lists, newspaper headlines and the occasional company memo. Nobody cared. But now we are forced to read and write in contexts that we didn’t have to in the past. Like e-mail and texting, for instance. They have largely replaced actual chatting and phone calls to an extent that the word “chatting” is now rarely associated with two people physically meeting and then exchanging spoken words. In this context, the plight of the person who does not like reading or writing becomes visible.
To these people, a lot of the content of websites, newspapers, e-mail, social networks, company memos, legal texts, etc. sounds awfully like bullshit. They hate trying to read a text they need to read and find out that they are unable to grasp the meaning because it’s full of words they don’t know and grammatical structures they can’t get.
We can’t dumb down the entire internet for the benefit of the non-readers, but, considering that they are, probably, the majority of the voters in a democracy and the majority of the consumers in a given market, we should try to communicate with them. We do learn foreign languages to communicate with other people. I, for one, have painstakingly learned English so I could, among other things, communicate with you and write this text so full of bullshit. To write a text that’s easier to understand by a non-reader is not “dumbing down”, it is an exercise of empathy.
Pocket calculators didn’t end the world, they just made the world easier for people who had a hard time with maths. They empowered these people in circumstances like finding out how much change they’d get from the grocery store or how much they should pay. I believe that many people who struggle with maths have saved money in many situations because they were able to use a pocket calculator. This app is a kind of a “pocket calculator” for those who struggle with written language. It certainly won’t end the world, but it will make it easier for the non-readers.
Perhaps what most readers are worried about is that the divide between readers and non-readers can produce an undesirable situation, in which the control of information flux can result in biased information provided to each demography, based on how well they can read. But this preoccupation is already dead on the water, because this undesirable situation already exists.
The non-readers get their news from spoken sources (radio, television) or from sources which already strive to provide them with simplified written texts (tabloid newspapers and simple-content websites). They are already bounded by limits imposed on them by the owners and controllers of said sources. What the app may cause is that smart people, with smart ideas but some difficulty to explain away these ideas to six-year-olds, will be able to try produce them in easy-to-read form, which the non-readers may understand. This will, in fact, provide non-readers with richer information than what they already have. The concept can be expanded to automated word-replacement and then be implemented in news sites, allowing people to see different versions depending on how big their vocabulary is. Different versions from a same source, instead of segregating non-readers to tabloids which only provide them with biased information.
All in all, there are many possibilities and not one of them involves ending the world. Of course, as Morten has just said, it would be a violence to force everyone to use the app, of course there is the possibility that people will feel compelled to use it (why writing your book for a potential public of about 16% of the population, when you can replace part of your vocabulary and be closer to 50% of everyone?), but, once again, this is not something new. There is already a divide between authors who write for the so-called “smart” guys and authors who write for Homer Simpson, with varying degrees of success.
The world won’t end because of a text editor, and if it does, I suspect it will be either Microsoft Word or Emacs (let the flame war unleash!).