Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The PC and the 3rs

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The PC and the 3rs

Article excerpt

IN a century of almost continuous technological innovation affecting all the major media of human communication, the last decade has been particularly marked by rapid and striking developments in telecommunications and the power and costeffectiveness of computers. Until recently, the inculcation of reading and writing skills has been the pre-eminent and unchallenged objective of almost all programmes of basic education the world over, but it is natural that sophisticated technical developments should prompt some reflection about the future significance of literacy, for both individuals and societies.

Among the many issues that arise, we can usefully concentrate our attention, in turn, on three. Do "traditional" literacy and the medium of print retain their importance in the face of competition new modes of transmitting information, and if so, how will they be altered? What degree of change is likely to take place in the level and spread of skills constituting literacy? Should the new media be seen as benign and potentially democratizing forces, or as sinister additions to the armouries of already powerful elites and bureaucracies? We can simplify our task somewhat by selecting the impact of the personal computer on literacy as the main example under scrutiny.

Before tackling these specific questions, there are two preliminary considerations of a general kind. The first is an obstacle to sound reasoning that must be removed. Many of the forecasts and scenarios that are being dispensed by contemporary commentators contain a debilitating flaw in their analysis. They assume that the new technologies usher in a set of predetermined social and economic consequences that are universal and irresistible-an assumption often referred to as technological determinism".

Many of the scenarios, whether optimistic or pessimistic in tone, consist of the extrapolation and generalization of trends from a particular technical development in a particular society. In predicting what will happen when that technology emerges in, or is transferred to, other societies, little or no allowance is made for the mediation of local economic, political and social processes.

The second consideration relates to literacy itself. Literacy is not a unified skill but a plurality of different capacities. A pedant would insist that we speak always of "literacies" in an effort to accommodate the fact, for example, that people literate" by all of the conventional benchmarks may nevertheless not be able to read or write in foreign" languages, or even use many of the specialist applications of writing and print available in their own natural language (for example, notations for music or chemical compounds, phonetic alphabets, proof-reading marks, maps, timetables, engineering plans, meta-languages for logical, mathematical or computing purposes).

One of the indirect impacts of new technologies is that they alter prevailing social definitions of the skills (and the level of the skills) that constitute literacy. It is important clearly to distinguish improving or declining rates of literacy from shifts in the way in which it is being conceived and defined.

Let us now take up the question of the durability of traditional literacy. One reliable measure of its continued importance is the level of consumption of printed paper, which has shown steady increases in both developed and developing societies over the past decade. Partly through its close connection with techniques of bureaucratic organization and project management, the incorporation of reading and writing into all spheres of life and into a vast assortment of mundane transactions is at work on a global scale. The situation is broadly similar for serious" writing and publication. Despite the forecasts that have been repeatedly made over the last fifty years concerning the imminent eclipse of "book cultures", the statistics show that the market for conventionally published works has held up in the face of the expansion of ostensibly rival" media such as recorded music, television and video. …

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