The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto (Peter Lang, 2010)

The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto is titled provocatively to address current debates about American education, intelligence, and the rise of popular culture. By focusing on “reading” the book addresses the crisis in public literacy, but chooses not to blame the familiar scapegoats of non-English-speaking immigrants and popular culture. Instead, The End of Reading argues that in a democratic, multicultural, and technologically-sophisticated society, we need to embrace multiple definitions of what it means to be a literate person. These new definitions of literacy require a more intensely interdisciplinary approach to “reading” the world, which recognize differences in the origins, forms, contexts, and cognitive processes of expression and reception. Getting at these definitions requires us to look beyond established paradigms of “media literacy” and “cultural studies”––though these remain crucial––and examine the sources of language, the field of perception, and the history of visual expression. Put another way, this mean looking past fields of education and media studies to also consider recent scholarship in anthropology, art history, linguistics, and psychology, among other areas.

The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto also seeks to expand discussions of literacy itself by situating its discussions in broader terms of language and vision. The End of Reading explores the historical origins of language as well as ways that people develop language abilities in childhood. The book similarly looks at humanity’s earliest non-linguistic picture and art-making inclinations and traces their parallel development with speaking and writing. In tracing these trajectories to the present day, the book doesn’t propose the “end of reading” so much as it advocates a more inclusive and stridently interdisciplinary view of literacy as we know it.  In doing so, the book offers a diverse approach to literacy compatible with evolving discourses in technology, multiculturalism, gender and disability studies. In personal terms, The End of Reading is informed by the struggles with reading of my nine-year old child. I continue to wonder how kids are going to do in a world that requires reading while increasingly making it seem irrelevant. Each chapter begins with an anecdote about early reading difficulties.

Welcome to Cyberschool: Education at the Crossroads in the Information Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)

In the United States education has a special place in the national imagination. Years ago, schooling was viewed as a critical tool of democracy, functioning as both a social equalizer and  a route to the American Dream. In more recent decades, education has enjoyed a less of exalted image, as the great social equalizer has been cast as the source of social, economic, and even moral decay in the United States. Schools have been characterized as bloated public bureaucracies populated by incompetent teachers allowing  standardized test score averages to drop below those of our international competitors. Competition and individual achievement are stressed over community values and the common good.

In the “tough love” climate of the times, school policies lost whatever liberal bent they had, as funding from Washington was systematically reduced. With less federal money, local school districts were obliged to depend increasingly more on local property tax revenues––which vary wildly from region to region. This exacerbated the differences between impoverished and wealthy schools,as gaps widened between white and non-white schools, and between those that  were technology rich and technology poor. Naming this condition one of “savage inequalities,” Jonathan Kozol asserted that progressive redistributive efforts had been “turned back a hundred years.”

Soon more profound changes occurred.  As offspring of the baby boom generation began to enter the classroom in the 1990s, debates over education shifted from assignments of blame to prescriptions for improvement. With government deficits turning into occasional surpluses, a renewed sense of urgency returned to educational policy discussions.  Suddenly everyone had ideas about how to fix schools by testing teachers, firing administrators, tinkering with admissions, offering vouchers, or promoting school choice. Joining the cacophony of voices were religious leaders, politicians, radio talk-show hosts, academics––in short, just about everyone except parents and students.  If the debates yielded anything, they demonstrated how multidimensional a problem effective educational reform turned out to be

Further complicating these discussions was an overriding belief that “technology” could help somehow. With the meteoric growth of high tech companies and their contribution to the nation’s economic recovery, technology became the solution to every problem. . Significantly, these early proponents of technologically-mediated education saw themselves as progressive reformers, not unlike the current promoters of computerized learning.

Reading Digital Culture (Blackwell, 2001)

To say that we inhabit a digital world is an understatement. In recent years information technology has transformed many fundamental parts of life: how we work and play, how we communicate and consume, how we create knowledge and learn, even how we understand politics and participate in public life. It is nearly impossible to make it though a day without encountering a computer, a digitally mediated image, or a news report about the current technological “revolution.” Most of us carry encoded magnetic strips of digits that tether us to our identity and enable us to function through digital means.  From the supermarket to the stock exchange, virtually all commerce is now mediated by computers. In al of these manifold ways, our reliance on digital data storage, computation, and telecommunication has made us profoundly dependent on digital technology whether we realize it or not. Indeed, ubiquity and invisibility have become defining characteristics of the  paradoxical information age.

This book addresses the way people think about this paradoxical age, the facts and fantasies of which have produced what might be termed a “digital culture.”  It tells the familiar story of a widely held popular viewpoint countered by various less-than-sanguine alternative perspectives. Celebrating the new computer era is a massive discourse in both mainstream media and academic literature in which the figure of

utopia looms large.  Evoking traditions of technological determinism and free-market boosterism, the denizens of information technology have promoted digital culture as the culmination of the Enlightenment project and the economic panacea of the post-industrial world. This overwhelming positive view of the information age is supported on one level by the very computer and software industries that have created the  largest,  wealthiest, and most powerful corporate infrastructure in human history, and on another level by the enormous “information economy” of content producers, merchandisers, communication provides, and other ancillary services of the digital industrial complex. All of this is equated with a narrative of humankind’s ever advancing march of progress, as information technology is touted as the ultimate vehicle of mastery and transcendence. Indeed, to some this technology is seen as the key to overcoming the limits of material existence––the means by which we become “posthuman.”

This utopian enthusiasm has been met by a less ubiquitous, but frequently vociferous,  measure of resistance from a myriad assortment of skeptics, neo-Luddites, and conspiracy theorists—ranging from pacifists and ecologists who despair the ruinous effects of war machines and greedy businesspeople, to the countless peoples and nations who stand on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” As Bill Gates and Steve Case proclaim the global ubiquity of the internet, it is important to remember that the majority of non-western nations and a whopping 97 percent of the world’s population remain unconnected to the net for lack of  knowledge, access, or money. [ii] In this regard its worth remembering the advice of Frederic Jameson, who warned two decades ago of dangers of equating “progress” with “utopia.” The desire for a future that is both different and better is often more a symptom of our dissatisfaction with the present than a genuine improvement in our lives. Enveloped as we are by the ideologies and social structures that surround us, the imagination of anything like a true utopia may well be impossible.