If we have a million photos, we tend to value each one less than if we only had ten. The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word's value on many axes. As each word tends to get less reading-time and attention and to be worth less money at the consumer end, it naturally tends to absorb less writing-time and editorial attention on the production side. Gradually, as the time invested by the average writer and the average reader in the average sentence falls, society's ability to communicate in writing decays. And this threat to our capacity to read and write is a slow-motion body-blow to science, scholarship, the arts—to nearly everything, in fact, that is distinctively human, that muskrats and dolphins can't do just as well or better.
The internet's insatiable demand for words creates global deflation in the value of words. The internet's capacity to distribute words near-instantly means that, with no lag-time between writing and publication, publication and worldwide availability, pressure builds on the writer to produce more. Global deflation in the value of words creates pressure, in turn, to downplay or eliminate editing and self-editing. When I tell my students not to turn in first-drafts, I sometimes have to explain, nowadays, what a first draft is.
Personal letters have traditionally been an important literary medium. The collected letters of a Madame de Sévigné, van Gogh, Jane Austen, E.B. White and a thousand others are classics of western literature. Why have no (or not many!) "collected emails" been published, on paper or online? It's not only that email writing is quick and casual; even more, it's the fact that we pay so little attention to the email we get. Probably there are many writers out there whose emails are worth collecting. But it's unlikely that anyone will ever notice. And since email has, of course, demolished the traditional personal letter, a major literary genre is on its last legs.
Writing ability is hard to measure, but we can try and the news is not good. Recently the London Daily Mail reported on yet another depressing evaluation of American students:
While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities [the study concluded], objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.
It's hard to know how to isolate the effects of net-driven word devaluation in the toxic mix which our schools force-feed our children every day. But at any rate, the Internet Drivel Factor can't be good—and is almost certain to grow in importance as the world fills gradually with people who have spent their whole lives glued to their iToys.
At the Huffington Post, the future is now; the Weekly Standard has republished parts of a Huff-and-Puffington piece by the actor Sean Penn. Even assuming that Sean Penn is a lot more illiterate than most people, the Post is a respectable site and the Penn piece is eye-opening.
The conflicted principle here, is that which all too often defines and limits our pride as Americans who, in deference to an omnipresent filter of monoculturalism, isolationism and division, are consistently prone toward behaviors and words, as insensitive and disrespectful, while at foremost counterproductive for the generation of young Americans who will follow us.
The only problem with this passage is that it is gibberish. The average ten-year-old hasn't fallen this far yet. But the threat is real, is way under the radar and likely to stay there; prognosis: grim.