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Technology's influence on reading, writing, and thinking

“Remembering how to write in a technology-driven world”

“Reading and writing in the era of handheld devices”

“Technology works best when paired with an educated human mind”

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Remembering how to write in a technology-driven world

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

In a world where every nanosecond counts, you need to multitask, absorb information in a heartbeat, and make rapid-fire decisions. You need to be agile, nimble, quick.

You also need to know something people have known since the beginning of civilization: language.


To go beyond the plain and simple to the nuanced and complex, to go beyond 140 characters to carefully structured paragraphs that are logically arranged into a coherent whole, you need to slow down. You need to learn the basics.


For all the wonderful things they do, computers get in our way. They seduce us with their mind-boggling features and distract us from more important matters. Even as they empower us, they undermine our abilities.


In my estimation, we’re losing ground in the following areas. I invite you to prove me wrong.


1. Correct punctuation


Correct the errors in the following sentences:


1. Computers save us time, however, they also waste our time.


2. I love my job (especially my three weeks’ vacation.)


2. Word choice


Identify the correct word:


3. Our principal/principle concern is economic justice.


4. For their grand opening, they offered complementary/complimentary drinks.


3. Breadth in vocabulary


Give five synonyms for


5. False


6. Unremarkable


4. Sensitivity to appropriate level of formality


Rewrite the first sentence to make it less stilted, and the second to make it more formal:


7. It is my recommendation that we undertake a study of this issue.


8. We are looking to improve customer service.


5. Variety in sentence structure


9. Define a periodic sentence.


10. Restructure the first sentence of the third paragraph in this column to make it a loose sentence.


6. Coherent development


11. Name the three parts of a standard paragraph.


12. To connect your thought to a previous paragraph, open the next paragraph with what type of sentence?


Here are the answers:


1. Replace the comma after time with a period or a semicolon to correct the comma splice.


2. Move the period outside the closing parenthesis. (Three weeks’ vacation is correct.)


3. Principal


4. Complimentary


5. Erroneous, fabricated, contrived, spurious, specious, etc.


6. Ordinary, banal, mundane, pedestrian, quotidian, etc.


7. I recommend we study this issue.


8. We are committed or dedicated to improving customer service.


9. In a periodic sentence, a series of phrases or clauses appears before the main clause (unlike a loose sentence, in which a series of phrases or clauses appears after the main clause).


10. You need to slow down to go beyond . . . to go beyond . . .


11. Topic, development, resolution


12. With a transitional topic sentence, such as “Despite its many benefits, the computer undermines our relationship with language.”


My guess is if you’re 30 years old or younger, you scored six or lower, and if you’re 31 or older, you scored 7 or higher.


Much as we love our devices, we need to be aware of their limitations. In some ways the computer helps, but in other ways it hinders.



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Reading and writing in the era of handheld devices

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


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My first text message from my 13-month-old granddaughter!


“What does it mean?” my wife says.


Obviously, it means our granddaughter is a genius.


But it also means her relationship with language will differ fundamentally from that of anyone who grew up before the era of handheld devices.


It’s not that she isn’t encountering written language in books. She loves to “read” (that is, to turn the pages and look at the pictures and printed words as books are being read to her). On a typical day she’ll “read” several books before noon – sometimes, the same two or three books, four or five times each.


What distinguishes her experience from that of anyone who grew up in the pre-handheld device (or PHD) era is the captivating allure of something that plays music, shows videos, diverts the attention of her adoring parents away from her, and brings grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to her as miniature images that look and sound just like the real thing.


So what effect will these devices have on future generations of readers and writers? What effect are they having now?


The latter question is more easily answered.


As booklover David Ulin recounts in The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, even he falls prey to the “buzz” of the Internet as it pulls him away from reading The Great Gatsby with his 15-year-old son Noah.


For writers, handheld devices are making certain trends even more pronounced. Twelve years ago I identified six changes in our on-the-job writing:


1. Vocabulary is becoming more basic – rather than finish something, we’re more likely to get it done, and rather than return something, we’re more likely to give it back.


2. Sentences and paragraphs are becoming shorter.


3. Sentence structures are becoming simpler and less varied, with compound structures (“She was worried about declining profits, and so she decided to postpone buying new computers”) more prevalent than complex structures (“Because she was worried about declining profits, she decided to postpone buying new computers”).


4. Commas are being used less frequently, as in “My company like yours is watching its spending,” rather than “My company, like yours, is watching its spending.”


5. Typographical errors involving transposed letters (as in hte for the) are becoming less frequent.


6. Good writing is more likely to be associated with quickness and agility than with deliberate, nuanced expression.


So how will handheld devices affect future readers and writers?


No one knows for sure. But while we figure it out, let’s not let these devices prevent young people from developing a love of reading and an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language.


If you’re like me and you love holding a well-designed book in your hand, but you also love the way your e-reader defines words without interrupting the flow of a good story, you might think about the behavior you’re modeling for the children around you.


You might even want to conceal your device inside the cover of a hardcopy book.


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Technology works best when paired with an educated human mind

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


In response to my column about how handheld devices are affecting the reading and writing habits of young people, Donna Korman from Arlington, Texas, reported on some disturbing trends.


The district where she teaches sent her to an all-day workshop on using technology to enhance learning for English Language Learners. At that workshop she heard “three alarming statements”:


1. Soon students will no longer need to learn how to read because everything will be read to them.


2. Soon students will no longer need to learn how to write because speech-to-text technology will make writing unnecessary.


3. Students don’t need to remember information, only where to find it.


Although skeptical, Korman is dismayed by how technology is being misused in the classroom:


“We are seeing a push in the schools to incorporate more technology at the expense of reading and writing. Creating PowerPoint presentations is replacing writing essays. Answering questions on a video is taking the place of reading literature. With all the research that is surfacing about the harmful effects of technology, we can only hope that the trend reverses itself sooner than later.”


With Korman’s concerns in mind, I recently attended a different gathering of educators and educated people, one that gave me hope for technology’s potential to shape our future in positive ways. It was a commencement reception for students earning their master’s degrees in Management of Technology from the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute, where I teach communication.


At that gathering, Professor Massoud Amin, who directs the institute, spoke of astonishing developments in technology, developments that might be taken as support for the alarming statements made by the presenter at Korman’s workshop: plastic cards available by the time the movie Mission: Impossible 5 is released that will allow you to select from more than 2,000 movies, smartphones linked to service providers with your secure confidential medical data that you can point at packages in a supermarket and be told if the product is medically safe or recommended for you, single fiber optics capable of holding all the information known to humankind.


Will these and other “technology triumphs” make reading, writing, and remembering – in other words, thinking – obsolete?


Professor Amin answered that question by reminding us that, for all its astonishing powers, technology is of most value when it is managed by intelligent, ethical people – in other words, when it is used in conjunction with the human mind. “The empires of the future,” he said, quoting Winston Churchill, “are the empires of the mind.”


Like Korman, I worry about the misuse of technology, and I find some of the trends alarming, but my conclusions run exactly opposite those of the presenter at her workshop.


Given the opportunities and challenges presented by our brave new world of technology, I believe that proficiency in reading and writing – even in altered and evolving forms – has never been more critical to our well-being. What better way to cultivate our minds, hone our intellects, and sharpen our thinking?




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