Millennials and their writing in the digital age ?
One of the fundamental laws of life ” use it or lose it” is evident in evolutionary biology, and in keeping with Darwinian principles, species have consistently lost functionality of organs and abilities that they didn’t use.
An interesting thought is whether similar laws apply to cognitive human abilities, especially those acquired as a learnt skill. One example which with we are all familiar is Mathematics. And Sanjay Datt the well known film star recently acknowledged to his prison wardens that he can’t write, as for years, he hadn’t done any written work except appending his signatures.
The generation that was taught ‘ proper writing’ including crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s is often miffed at the Millennium generation who’s language sometimes seems as if it is from another planet. So did American English seem to those grown up on the ‘ Queen’s English’.
The first blow to the rich tradition of the language was dealt by the field of Computing, which instead of taking words from Greek, Latin and French as traditional Science, Law or Medicine had done, created a lexicon of a whole set of dull and boring words such as ” input, output,printout, hardware and software” and numerous TLAs ( Three Letter Acronyms) such as “CPU,RAM,ROM,SQL”.
The next Smartphone, Tablet and Social Media Generation took very seriously the old adage that ‘ Brevity is the soul of wit’ and cannot write without emoticons and acronyms.
IMHO ( In my humble opinion) this is not really all that new and we have been doing this for centuries. I learnt when I was in School ( and that was about 60 years ago) that the word NEWS for what we search on 24×7 channels was coined by taking the first letters from North, East, West and South). And one of the popular questions for GK ( General Knowledge) were full forms of terms like UNO, UNESCO,WHO and RSVP. Of course, Royalty has been referred to as HRM, HRH and communications on their behalf as OHMS; not to mention OBE. All this predated SMS or even computers for that matter. And yet we often attribute to SMS the lack of interest and ability among youth to write well articulated essay like pieces that develop a point of view, an argument and marshall facts for the same.
We often wonder whether SMS language will affect or has already significantly affected formal writing among students, rendering them incapable of producing formal communication.
The proliferation of SMS language has been criticised for causing the deterioration of English language proficiency and its rich heritage. Opponents of SMS language feel that it undermines the properties of the English language that have lasted throughout its long history. Furthermore, words within the SMS language that are very similar to their English-language counterparts can be confused by young users as the actual English spelling and can therefore increase the prevalence of spelling mistakes. This view also considers emoticons and textese as “irritating” and essentially lazy behavior, and surmises that “sloppy” habits gained while using textese will result in students’ growing ignorance of proper spelling,grammar and punctuation.
The other view is that languages evolve and we have moved from the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens to modern times, and vocabulary as well as usage should keep changing.
The reciprocal to ” use it or lose it” is the law of exponential growth or ” greater adoption leads to greater growth”. Actually both can be expressed as a simple differential equation : dy/dt=ky , where t is the time, y the thing we are using and k a constant which if positive leads to growth and if negative to loss.
” Reading maketh a full man” said Francis Bacon. He also said ” writing maketh an exact man and conversation maketh a ready man”. The importance of writing can never be under-stated. Also as we improve our writing skills, we enhance the accuracy of our communication. Speaking is transient, but writing is a record of the spoken word, giving it a sense of finality and non-perishability.
Omar Khayyam said
” The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries from the ‘ Ten Commandments’ inscribed in the Tablets held by Moses to the present day capacitive screen tablets, and not too far into the future electro-phoretic paper tablets.
The quill, the nib within holders and inkpots, the fountain pen, the ball-point pen, the printing press, the typewriter, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand. Some feel that typing text messages on a mobile phone via the tiny soft keyboard is very cumbersome. How about simply writing your words in the air?
This idea drove the development of “airwriting” by computer scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. Sensors attached to a glove record hand movements, a computer system captures relevant signals and translates them into text, which can then create an email, text message, or any other type of mobile app.
So, if you just wave your hands as if writing, or speak to a speech to text conversion App and great writing in a choice of fonts is displayed on whatever screen one wants and is posted to a blog, with automatic tagging without the author supplying a list of keywords or tags, is the one who initiated this still ‘writing’? In some sense it is a similar question ( made famous by Michael Sandel of Harvard University) ” is one still playing golf, if he doesn’t walk the golf course, but moves from near one stop of the ball to the next stop of the ball, in a golf-cart”?
The essence of writing is therefore not about the method or device, but about ideas and articulating the ideas in a manner that they can flow from one mind to another. And when ideas combine, new ideas come forth that lead to human creativity and innovation and this is where the importance of writing is most. It is not important whether we write cursively by hand, embed mathematical expressions and chemical symbols and equations or flow charts and mind maps, it is still writing. The new issues in the digital age are original ideation, imitation and plagiarism.
The nature of the written word had evolved over time to make way for an informal, colloquial written style, where an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mail, SMS), and in some cases, with an imperceptible time delay (instant messaging). Socially, writing is seen as an authoritative means of communication, from legal documentation, law and the media all produced through the medium. The growth of multimedia literacy can be seen as the first steps toward a postliterate society.
Writing can have a similar effect on the mind as does meditation. Breathing slows down and one gets into a ” zone” where words freely flow. This can make stream of consciousness writing a very effective method for de-stressing.
So we need to consider ways in which the art of writing can be cultivated among youngsters.
Reading is an essential activity to enhance your vocabulary ( and hence your writing). Other audio-visual media do not provide such a rich diversity of words, because they are supported by richer media. As is sometimes said : ” first you learn to read, then you read to learn”
If the use of computers and search tools like Google and Wikipedia are responsible for the new mindsets of the young, then we need to leverage these very tools to help them develop ideas and to articulate them as written communications to be read by others. Producing written texts is a challenge not only because of weak linguistic skills, but also poor processing skills. There have been very effective and successful attempts at using Webquests ( an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web) and electronic journals ( including blogs) to cultivate writing skills, combined with instructional strategy based on Gagne’s 9 events of instruction taught in many Teacher Training programs. Encouragement to write will happen if the tasks they are required to do are wrapped around a doable and interesting challenge that is ideally a scaled down version of things that established professionals do as authors and writers.
The reason for many millennials not being fluent in writing, is perhaps that the development of these skills has not been taken up explicitly in a systematic way. While texting and chatting may be an activity they partake in frequently, it doesn’t ipso facto come in their way of desired communication skills for the workplace. We need to emphasise the benefits of sharing and cross-fertilisation of ideas to build new and better worlds and the inherent expression of the uniqueness of each person as displayed in their writing.