Alvin and Heidi Toffler—authors of such bestsellers as Future Shock, The Third Wave, and (my favorite) Creating a New Civilization—posit that human civilization has gone through several distinct stages, each culturally earthshaking. Humans started as hunter-gatherers, then settled as farmers, eventually underwent industrialization, and are now experiencing an information revolution. The Toffler’s premise is that each of those stages created a world of turmoil for its inhabitants, and that those who adapted most quickly to each new paradigm flourished, while those who held too tightly to the old system waned.
Note also that each of those revolutions has swept the world more quickly than the previous: The agricultural revolution has taken a few thousand years to spread, the industrial only a few hundred, and the computer age only decades. As a result, part of our modern turmoil is that some corners of the globe are coping with more than one of those revolutions at once!
Settling into the Information Age
In some ways, I’d argue that the information age is mimicking earlier roots of civilization. The hunter-gatherer family unit was the tribe; agrarian societies decreased that to the extended family fixed to a plot of land; industrialism broke up even the farm family’s multi-generational ties and created the highly mobile nuclear family of father, mother, and children. Following that pattern, the information age should focus entirely on the individual—and perhaps it is—but practically speaking, it seems to be building tribes of hunter-gatherers again, at least online. When I need a solution to a problem, I hunt the Web to see what can be gathered and usually land in a message board of tribe members who have faced the same issue. Over time, I come to rely on those same groups more extensively, getting to know the individuals more fully. We band together to achieve common goals.
Similarly, in earlier ages of civilization, a higher percentage of the population lived in villages. In a village, everyone knows your business. Now, with the advent of social networking, we are seeing the rise of a global village in which, again, everyone’s business is on public display—bringing a new focus on personal reputation and ability to communicate.
Writing in the Information Age
Because most online interaction currently involves writing, writing is becoming the new speaking. Or to put it more accurately, any artificial gap we may have imagined between the innate human activity of speaking and the millennia-old human activity of writing is rapidly being papered over (if you’ll pardon the pun) in an age that is increasingly involved simply with getting the point across—whatever the medium.
Communication is, of course, a continuum. At one end is the face-to-face conversation, which allows immediate adaptation to any response. A step up the electronic scale is the typical phone conversation, in which response is still immediate, but some of the physical context (facial expressions, full tone of voice, etc.) is missing. Close by is text messaging and online chat, which have the immediacy of a phone conversation but even less physical context. A step farther lies email, relatively near the good, old-fashioned ground-mail letter, either of which may gain a reply in kind. Next comes the online posting, and any electronic comments it may garner. And finally there is the book (electronic or printed), intended as a longer, more contemplative communication, without interruption. Notice that as we to move toward the book end of the spectrum, what we lose in immediacy, we gain in permanency—which is to say that not only can the communicator become more contemplative, but so can the recipient.
Any divide, however, is not between one of those media and another. Rather it is simply between thought and its expression. An unexpressed thought is an unfinished thought. Put that thought into words—whether spoken or written—and it comes fully into existence, ready to do its work, ready to be judged on its merit. This is what young people are now discovering unconsciously as they seamlessly switch from spoken conversation to text message to email on the same phone, as they log onto the Web to post reviews of their favorite bands or books and debate the comments of other posters, as they create blogs to share thoughts we and our parents and grandparents might instead have hidden in private journals. By trial and error, they are learning what it takes to communicate effectively in the global village.
We can help, of course. But to be most effective, we should begin to think of ourselves not as writing teachers, but as communication mentors. This is the role best suited for the educator in the global village. The more aware we can become of the writing tasks our students are setting themselves, and the problems they are encountering, the better we can serve them. In the process, we will also best gain the “authority” to teach lessons they do not yet know they need.