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The death of creative literacy

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The spelling's atrocious, the grammar's non-existent, and there is no punctuation, period. But it's a real text message, ending a very real relationship. Don't ask me how I know.

Welcome to our 21st century, the beginning of creative literacy's death. William Shakespeare saw it coming. In 1602, when he first entered The Merry Wives of Windsor into the Register of the Stationers' Company, he wrote: "Here will be an old abusing of God's patience and the king's English." Little did he know what he had started. Little would he have ever wanted to.

In 2005, our Ontario government set a literacy achievement target of 75 per cent. Seventy-five per cent of what? In today's highly technological society, literacy and illiteracy have often become indistinguishable. It now seems more important to keep your tweet to 140 characters than to learn how to spell. And, if you don't use sentences, then grammar becomes irrelevant. Premier Dalton McGuinty suggested last September that schools should consider allowing students to use cellphones in classrooms. Jumping on this misguided bandwagon, the Toronto District School Board then announced that it was considering a rethink of its cellphone ban, perhaps by allowing students to use them to take notes during classes. But teachers already know the reality would be anything but. Taking notes with a smart phone, after all, just means plagiarizing the Internet. Students would also be texting, tweeting and surfing – the extent of many teenagers' modern literacy skills.

Is this literacy's destiny? Chicago journalist Sydney J. Harris devoted 45 years of his life to the printed word. His analysis:

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers."

Technology has made this happen. Back in 1968, HAL, the renegade computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, simplified the computer thought process that, as Harris suggested, would soon come to infect men: "I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do." Fullest possible use – without thought, without conscience. Technology now seduces us into performing predetermined tasks so quickly that there is no time for any reflective literate thought. Much like the Sirens of old, technology lures us away from the challenging open seas of original thinking onto the dangerous rocks of readily available and already conveniently prescribed Internet opinions and judgments. Today's Sirens' call is easily accessible by a simple mouse click. So creative literacy is dying from neglect; an inevitable result of this human laziness.

Missing Human Link in Technological Literacy

How can we recreate literacy? Robert Cottrell, in the 2007 Economist debate series on education, identified the missing human link in technological literacy: "How do we even measure, and how broadly should we measure, the educational impact of new technologies? No doubt, by putting iPods in the classroom, we can improve iPod skills. No doubt a newer generation of microprocessors can help the maths class calculate pi to even more decimal places. But what about social skills? Kindness? Common sense? Happiness?" A conscious entity is capable of so much more than just "putting itself to the fullest possible use," which is all that amoral technology ever invites.

Second World War General Omar Bradley lamented, "The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience." A half-century later, we have yet to reverse that trend, a trend which achieved the brilliance needed to dangerously drill kilometres into deep ocean waters without the wisdom of predicting that we might need to plug a leaking hole, and the power to create a financial system so complicated that it collapsed under the weight of indeterminate and conscienceless greed. A return to carefully thought out and originally creative (and recreative) literacy will generate the much-needed questions that will lead instead to wise brilliance and to conscientious power. This literacy can be just as easily expressed by quill and scroll as through keyboard and monitor. Pablo Picasso, one of our greatest 20th-century creators, left us with this warning about the dangers of technology in general and computers in particular "But they are useless. They can only give you answers."

Creative literacy asks questions. Let's stop settling for the quick and prescribed answers. Let's start asking the hard questions – 140 characters just isn't going to do it. Sorry, HAL.

—Dave Bird
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