John UpdikeBe forewarned. This is another John Updike day—when I need to sound so 18th century and anti-new media despite my normal love of technology. Don’t tell me to drink another cup of coffee. I’d go with orange juice, except we’re out of that.

The inner Updike in me is grumpy about the following statement from Larry Lessig, with whom I usually agree:

“Applying copyright laws focused on the dominance of text, in an age dominated by audio-visual media is clearly a step in the wrong direction. As the web makes the use of sound and (moving) images accessible to more and more people, the literacy of the age should not be measured in terms of the written word, but instead in the language of the era: video.”

“Literacy” not necessarily “usage”

Larry Lessig is full of turds. Yes, I get his main point—Hollywood shouldn’t micromanage usage; we need our freedom. I’m with Lessig so far. But would he kindly stop using the word “literacy” and replace it with a term such as “dominant means of communicating”? Do not confuse “literacy” with “usage.” In fact, even on the Net, text still prevails if we include instant messaging and e-mail.

I’m all in favor of “video literacy” and phrases of that nature, as long as an appropriate word precedes “literacy.” But, please, the number one definition of “literacy” is exactly what the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says in its first definition: “The condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.”

Hijacking naked “literacy”

Granted, a note in the same dictionary says: “More recently, the meanings of the words literacy and illiteracy have been extended from their original connection with reading and literature to any body of knowledge. For example, ‘geographic illiterates’ cannot identify the countries on a map, and ‘computer illiterates’ are unable to use a word-processing system. All of these uses of literacy and illiteracy are acceptable.” But did you notice? A particular word, related to a specific field, appears in front of variants of “literacy.” The naked word “literary,” in my opinion, should still apply just to reading and writing. I resent the multimedia crowd’s hijacking of the word. This is not good news for advocates of e-books, even if, yes, most of us are probably looking forward to the multimedia variety for use in areas such as entertainment and education, especially of the disabled.

I love Web audio and video and the rest, but I’d hate to see the word “literacy” stripped of its traditional meaning—whether to sell more Web cams or even to fight Hollywood-bought copyright law. Hello, William Safire? This battle is worthy of a column if you haven’t written one already.

Speaking of literacy in a truly old-fashioned way: Yes, the TeleBlog comes with barbarities for free. Without real-time copy editing, most blogs inherently are not Safire columns.


  1. What a gem:
    “Larry Lessig is full of turds.”

    Can someone please get Rothman an fresh Lithium prescription? He seems to off his meds.
    David, your vitriol poisons everything you endorse. Please pick another side in this debate because you are doing the rest of us no favors.

  2. Wow. Now I’ve poisoned old-fashioned “literacy.” – D

    Addendum, 10:47 a.m.: On reflection, I’d probably have used a milder phrase. Let’s go with “full of malarkey in this case.” 😉 I continue to agree with most of Lessig’s stands. Oh, and one more detail: I don’t just “pick” arguments. I go with the ones I believe in.

  3. Hi, Branko. You’re very welcome to your own interpretation, but when Larry Lessig says that “the literacy of the age should not be measured in terms of the written word, but instead in the language of the era: video”–well, it would seem that he is playing down the potential of text. I applaud Lessig’s efforts to liberalize copyright in regard to video and so on, but I’m a little put off when he says:

    “Now those of us that spend our lives as academics writing texts like to believe that people understand the world through the texts that we write. But we increasingly need to recognize that writing words is the latin of our modern time. And the ordinary language of the people, the vulgar language of the people, is not words, it’s this – video and sound.”

    Is the written word the Latin of our modern times? So much for the possibilities of mass education, or the progress that has already been made in many developing countries.

    Again, I’m not saying that Lessig is wrong about copyright—just that he should not downplay the importance of the written word. Elites control the world and rule through the written word; that isn’t going to change, and understandably not. Imagine even a local zoning case having to be recorded just in video. I don’t want to see the elitists able to use written and spoken words fluently, while the masses are restricted to the latter—because technology has mattered more than education.

    Should local zoning hearings be videoed if possible? Of course. Here’s to mass participation! But the written word will prevail in the end, because the elitists correctly value its power and permanence.


    P.S. Check out Wikipedia’s country-by-country literacy stats and other literacy info—including the graph here. Why adapt to illiteracy?

  4. When Larry Lessig says that “the literacy of the age should not be measured in terms of the written word, but instead in the language of the era: video”–well, it would seem that he is playing down the potential of text.

    I’d hope it would; if not, Lessig would be a sloppy writer. But you took issue with more than just that. You specifically disliked the fact that he used the word “literacy”, on the presumption that he did not further qualify the word. And that presumption was what I had a problem with, because he *did* qualify the term.

  5. Heck, Branko, I think that “of age” isn’t that much a qualification. Besides, remember that Lessig is positioning text as like Latin. The truth, as I’ve shown with the linked stats, is that basic literacy is growing. It’s dead not. Why tailor civic life excessively to illiterates? You’re welcome to do the angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead routine, but you need to consider the general context of Lessig’s remarks in your interpretation of the phrase “of the age.” Whether you want to or to, you would do well to ponder the general substance and purpose of his remarks.

    While I heartily agree with Lessig on copyright on this case, I dislike his building up multimedia while playing down the written word as a form of empowerment for the masses. It’s tough enough to elect decent politicians even when people are at least literate at the basic level. Look at the United States. We got George Bush. Whether we’re Americans or Europeans or live elsewhere, do we really want electorates that are even more vulnerable to sound bites? Grassroots video has an important place (look how it helped expose the racist George Allen in my own state of Virginia), but it is no substitute for text. Simply put, we should worry more about education and less about technology as a way to address the issue of literacy and civic participation. Of course, the latter can help the former at times.

    OK, I’ll give you the last (written) word.

    Happy holidays,

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