Streaming Aloud

Tim Stewart analyzes literacy and communication skills in the liquid-modern world

Recent editorials in Language Magazine caught my attention. In the June 2010 issue, the wonders of our global village are outlined to make the case for world languages and cultures teaching. The August and September editorials reflect on the need to expand materials in schools to match learning styles, and on the battleground issues of funding and standardized testing, respectively. This article aims to extend those discussions by examining the link between the spread of corporate ideals, technology, literacy, and language education.

The Liquid-Modern World:
Is it Something Completely Different?
The most notable characteristic of today’s liquid-modern society is that people now experience time in a way that is completely different from past societies. Time in the liquid-modern world is neither linear nor cyclical. Time has become punctuated in a movement between points whose connection is often tenuous at best. From the moment we wake up, many of us experience time as a series of events or episodes often viewed through multiple screens. People today can have the television on while listening to a music player and viewing a number of electronic documents and/or web browser windows as they simultaneously eat breakfast. It is this type of constantly connected media experience that scholars like Bauman (2007, 2008) and Eriksen (2001) describe as “liquid” in texture.
Why do we feel the need to rush ever faster? Part of the answer has to do with the explosion of content, and part with the nature of technological change. According to at least one expert, more information has been produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5,000. “A single copy of the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a cultivated person in the eighteenth century would consume during a lifetime” (Ramonet, 1999, as cited in, Ericksen, 2001, p. 71). With so much information constantly at our fingertips, we feel the pressing urge to update. And, since speed is contagious (Ericksen), the faster things move, the less patient we become. Concentration and deep thought become difficult to sustain.

Chronic Distraction and Dulled Literacy
Recent studies suggest that our brains need downtime to process information. In other words, the liquid-modern consumer’s preference for being always plugged in might hinder learning. The anticipation of incoming messages creates a compulsive urge to check for new messages that increases stress over long periods of time. This constant distraction may in fact take up a good deal of working memory that is essential for concentration, intellectual development and long-term memory (Richtel, 2010b). In addition, the whirl of flipping from device to device and screen to screen can cause fatigue, which, like excessive stress, inhibits learning.
Hedges (2009) maintains that the “cult of distraction” many of us now experience is promoted through the spread of market/corporate ideology into every aspect of our lives. It “seduces us to engage in imitative consumption,” wherein “commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality” (p.38, p.45). Liquid-modern society is governed by worldviews and behavioral patterns shaped by markets. That is, consumerism is now the social force that binds us together (Bauman, 2007).
The digital revolution is directly tied to modern capitalism and the workplace. Inevitably, these links wash back into schools. Our current students are future workers who need skills. So what is the influence of digital technology on learning? Our chronic distraction has very serious educational and wider social implications.
This may not be news to informed educators, but many people have given up on book reading. Books are far too tedious for many young minds today. One-third of U.S. high school graduates do not read a single book after getting their diploma, while 42 percent of college graduates stop reading books after graduation (Hedges, 2009). An English professor at Duke University recently confessed that she no longer expects her literature students to read whole books (Baron, 2008). Tapscott (2008) describes the reading habits of Rhodes Scholar Joe O’Shea, a student of philosophy who admits: “I don’t read books…. Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.” Hypermedia encourages reading that is normally a fast surface skim between links, often jumping around a plethora of topics, which engenders superficiality.
It appears that book readers are now “losers” rather than “leaders” in a culture that worships affluence, status, instant celebrity, and immediate access. Hollywood, Wall Street, reality television, and YouTube provide attractive role models for students. The message is simple: get as much as you can as fast as you can with the least amount of effort possible. Serious ideas, knowledge and facts are boring since they take too much time to process. Slick presentation and marketing trump substance at every turn and this puts many people in our society at a significant disadvantage.
In a hurried world of ever-accelerating change that is confusing to the most thoughtful and highly educated among us, many people in this “information society” are without reference points of knowledge, through which to reflect upon and understand their world. “The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in the eternal present.” (Hedges, 2009, p. 47). This is what Eriksen (2001) describes as the tyranny of the moment.
The illusion of instant celebrity and success projected by corporate media is now changing our idea of what constitutes knowledge since status is not gained by a firm grasp of informational facts, but by personality and image. This drive to the lowest common denominator threatens critical literacy, that is, the ability to distinguish truth from lies and manipulation. In this “information age,” ignorance of basic facts is growing amongst the American public (Hedges, 2009).
The tsunami of information that fills our screens overwhelms every one of us at times, or all the time. Of course, the skill needed to deal with this situation is the ability to sort and distinguish between information that is valuable to us and is as accurate as possible, and junk. Connectivity encourages multitasking and most multitaskers are convinced that they are great at it. However, groundbreaking research by Stanford Professor Clifford Nass leads him to conclude: “multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking…. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.” He goes on to warn that: “Recent work we’ve done suggests [multitaskers] are worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly” (Dretzin, 2010). For learning to occur, the brain needs time to “think on” problems. But if our mind is muddled and unable to first clearly and consciously define the issue, this vital unconscious thought process does not occur (Dijksterhuis, 2004).
Dr. Nass has also found that multitasking individuals often “can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they are not multitasking” (Richtel, 2010a). This is an intriguing point about the effects of digital technology on the human brain.
Technologies shape individuals and societies by framing what we see and how we see it. Fundamentally, media shape our patterns of perception (McLuhan, 2003, p. 31). Maps, clocks, the printing press, and books are perhaps the most profound examples of what Carr (2010) classifies as “intellectual technologies.” This category of tools has “the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think” (Carr, p. 45).
The Renaissance brain that shaped contemporary Western civilization differed from the brain of the Middle Ages. Brain imaging technology is now revealing the highly plastic nature of the brain. Studies in neuroplasticity show that tools we use can actually be mapped into our brains as extensions of the body. One study showed that human brains can change by merely imagining performing some action (e.g., playing the piano) (Carr, 2010, pp. 32-33).
According to the leading brain scientist Nora Volkow, digital technology “is rewiring our brains” (Richtel, 2010a). She and other researchers believe that the dopamine-induced pleasure our brains enjoy from digital stimulation is on the same basic survival level as that of food and sex. If correct, this would make the attraction of digital technologies overwhelming for most people.
Unlike speaking and listening, both reading and writing are unnatural skills that must be learned, normally in schools. If the abilities of our students with regard to these skills change in significant ways, what might be the result for civilization? No one knows.
“[T]he world of the screen … is a very different place from the world of the page” (Carr, 2010, p. 77). And with the explosion of applications, digital machines seemingly can do everything, anywhere, at very high speeds. The real paradigm shift is that unlike radio, phonograph, cinema, and television, the new technologies are extremely portable and can transmit the written word. But not only that, the Internet and e-book readers are changing the entire experience of reading and writing. E-books are being “enhanced” with links, videos and various extras. These invasive hypermedia distractions have to affect the way we read and process information (see Greenfield, 2009).
This pattern of recreating products and offering endless “choice” is driven by the omnipresent consumerist ideology of the market. To lure us into continuous consumerism, there is always something newer and better (“enhanced”) on offer. As educators, we are naturally interested in the information choices being bundled and packaged for us. The print versions of newspapers now imitate electronic articles by becoming shorter and simpler with less analysis. The sound bites of infotainment now accepted as news are piped into schools, along with advertisements, to inform young citizens.
People today are “power-browsing” rather than reading deeply. Skimming and scanning are valuable reading skills that help us find information for deeper reading later. But for people who read predominantly online, skimming is fast becoming their dominant mode of reading. Most Web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less as 18 percent of the text on a typical page is read (Nielson, 2006, as cited in, Carr, 2010). So while many people may actually read more, it is an open question as to whether they are better informed.
Information flows so rapidly today that it has become another disposable good. People want information that resembles fast food — quick and easy — as a defense mechanism to deal with the flood of choices offered by the market through constant updates to our digital devices. Many people feel overwhelmed and fatigued after a day of constantly skimming and scanning screens. Who has time or energy for deep reading, deep thought and serious discussion?

Reskilling for Global Communication
Public school teachers are constantly under fire for the poor performance of students. The solutions offered as remedies for the apparent decline in learning are again limited by the corporate agenda: more technology, more skills training, and more standardized testing. These limited choices are the direct result of the spread of corporate ideology through the idolization of markets. After all, “the market” (whatever that is) can do no wrong. The marketplace is competitive and competition results in the most efficient use of resources.
Most employers who will hire our students likely value transferable “skills” rather than specialist subject knowledge. Not surprisingly, the concepts of communication and skills in language teaching are currently defined by the organization of work in the global workplace (i.e., competition and efficiency) and changing ideas of knowledge in the liquid-modern world (Cameron, 2002). Competition and efficiency mark the highest goals of our society.
The ideological worldview of global (i.e., Anglo-American) capitalism is ubiquitous. As a case in point, much of the research that underpins pedagogical developments in language teaching is influenced by the corporate culture of enterprise and marketing. A good deal of Second Language Acquisition research starts out by framing communication as somehow necessarily an exchange of information that seeks to be effective and efficient given the pressures of the global marketplace (Block, 2002). Performance is measured in quantitative terms, since anything that cannot be measured is of no value. Block refers to this trend as McCommunication, following Ritzer’s (2008) idea of McDonaldization describing how product and systems rationalization leads to standardization or homogenization in society.
But solid data and analysis are no longer necessary for many corporate leaders in America. The righteousness of the self-serving market worldview that brought us “too big to fail” is reinforced by pseudo experts who speak in the euphoric tongue of positive thinking psycho-babble and stroke the massive egos of the entitled class (Ehrenreich, 2009). The culture of self-improvement has also significantly impacted approaches employed to teach language and communication. Today, there are listening and speaking courses for L1 learners that actually resemble those for L2 students (Cameron, 2002). The self-improvement culture tells people that they must work on their skills to get ahead in the competitive global workplace. Even the talking skills of native speakers are no longer taken for granted in the corporate world. According to neo-Taylorites (proponents of “scientific management” to improve efficiency), there are prescribed ways of communicating that are “effective” and “efficient,” and these should be broken down into skills that can be packaged, sold, and taught.
Much expert discourse about interpersonal communication is produced by psychologists, therapists and counsellors. Many of the communication strategies which are most enthusiastically advocated by experts in this tradition, such as speaking directly (the key recommendation of assertiveness training) and engaging in open self-disclosure, are problematic in cultures whose notions of personhood and modes of social organization diverge markedly from the Western/Anglo mode (Cameron, 2002, p. 80).
Ignoring the work of sociolinguists and ethnographers, many of the Western self-help experts claim that their modes of communication are universal and/or desired by people in different cultures. To them, problems in communication “arise only to the extent that languages embody different or incommensurable worldviews. It is those “deeper” differences that need to be leveled if global communication is to be effective” (Cameron, 2002, p. 69).
This corporate drive is the new, subtler version of linguistic imperialism. The linguistic structure and diversity of languages is not threatened, but values underlying a particular worldview are promoted at the expense of others. “The discourse of ‘global’ communication is not a case of postmodern ‘hybridity’ or ‘fusion’” (Cameron, 2002, p. 70). Rather, standardized communication norms and genres largely flow from the U.S. and U.K. to the non-English world.

The Inflection Point
The Internet is not a global communication network carefully designed by educators to enhance learning. It is a system that scatters attention as it affects human interaction in fundamental ways. Professor Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care” (Richtel, 2010a).
Technological deskilling diminishes the social and language skills of our youth. Take for example the recent activity, or non-activity, amongst college roommates. Young people used to communicating in short bursts of texting seem to have trouble working out everyday conflicts. They instinctively contact mom and dad who, accustomed to the speed of digital communications, have a tendency to jump in and put their child’s “passage to adulthood on indefinite hold” (Hofer and Moore, 2010, p. 13). So much for growing up, and so much for empathy.
But empathy is the stuff that makes us human. “We are at an inflection point,” according to Dr. Nass. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented” (Richtel, 2010a). As a species, is empathizing a skill we can afford to lose? How should educators in this liquid-modern world respond?

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Tim Stewart ([email protected]) is a member of the faculty of the Institute for the Promotion of Excellence in Higher Education at Kyoto University. He has been training teachers as well as teaching communication and intercultural studies courses for 20 years.