When I try to convince my friends of the merits of some new fangled internet thing, whether it’s about the relevance of Ushadi to international development or the usefulness of AMEE to engineers, I often feel that in their minds I’m being filed away into a particular box.

If you like Twitter, if you see potential for citizens to access government services via the web, if you blog, then you’re a hopeless, unsophisticated optimist who signs up to every passing fad.
On the other hand, nerdom does exactly the same thing right back. If you worry about “Internet addiction”, the breakdown of interpersonal skills, think that crowd sourcing threatens notions of professionalism or can’t see the point of gamification then you’re a luddite that “doesn’t get it”. You’re the kind of sentimentalist who would drag everyone back to the good old days of rationing and coal mining and slum tenements and feudalism.

Those are your choices. Guardian or Daily Mail, bullshitter or tedious reactionary, panglossian optimist or po-faced medievalist. Stephen Fry or Brian Sewell.

Being typecast in this way is annoying; it means that when I try to evince the benefits of some web thing or other anyone skeptical will simply assume that my judgement is hopelessly clouded.

Conversely anyone who raises a legitimate concern will disappear under an avalanche of comments.

Often this binary assumption about people’s psychology distracts from sensible conversation about which of the opportunities the web presents are most valuable to society. It’s from this angle that I consider the following question: does getting your intellectual nourishment from a computer screen reduce your capacity to have complex thoughts or reduce your mental acuity?

The most eloquent dismissal of this idea that I’ve heard is from an LSE podcast. Jonathan Douglas, director of The National Literacy Trust frames the debate in terms of a dynamic understanding of what it is to be literate. As examples, he points out that Socrates hated the idea of writing, and thought of it as “killing words”. For Socrates, the only way to be literate was to participate in discussion, not to read it secondhand.

In antiquity, it was most common for reading to be out loud, and the ability to clearly orate a text was a critical aspect of literacy. Now moving your lips as you read is a sign of stupidity.

To quote Jonathan Douglass “Technology is driving a massive change in reading, from personal to social and interactive”. He notes that the concept of authority and critical skills are now part of the core skills that you need to access ideas, so that to be literate in the most modern sense is to understand the provenance of Wikipedia articles and to treat the information appropriately.

None of this means that reading on the web is more or less able to convey complex ideas, or to be valued any more or less than books.

Books, however, have a particular fetishised status which many people can’t get over. For a long time they have been the primary means for getting access to ideas, and so they have come to be seen as the only (serious) means for accessing ideas. They no longer have this special status and we need to bear in mind that books are just containers – it’s their payload that really matters. The most important thing is for concepts to be imparted, not the means by which it is done.

Collecting books, which can absolutely see the appeal of, is really a kind of cargo cult. Having the first edition doesn’t change the knowledge contained within the book, it represents a kind of faith the physical object rather than the words within. This is the cult of books, and while understandable, it’s not a sound basis for ignoring other media.

I’ve seen representatives of the Campaign for Real Eduction in TV interviews criticising the idea that a school might buy laptops on the basis that they should really buy books. Susan Greenfield, an Oxford Neuroscientist, has suggested all kinds of problems that might be caused by a failure to spend enough time with books, always gathering attention from the popular press but never supporting her ideas with any evidence.

I think this notion of changing literacy is very helpful in explaining to skeptics the potential of the web to provide a whole new way to access intellectual thought. It couldn’t be more apposite that I discovered it by listening to a podcast from an event that I would otherwise never have found out about.

It’s not a sop to short attention spans, or “dumbing down”, to express information in format other than extended prose. One of my favorite examples is Hyperphysics, which shows the central concepts of physics in relation to each other. It’s not a linear text book, but I don’t think anyone can accuse it of dumbing physics down.

Most excitingly, there is an opportunity to throw open the doors to academia, with lectures and talks available as podcasts, professors keeping blogs and course notes appearing online – this is a genuine opportunity to let learning that was once confined to institutions out of it’s cage. It would be foolish to pass this up simply because of a dogmatic allegiance to binding our knowledge into volumes and lodging them at the British Library.

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