August 26, 2009
Clive Thompson talks to the Stanford Study of Writing’s Andrea Lunsford about the astonishing
decline super-tumescence of reading and writing:
“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.
It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
It’s really easy to push this too far, and Thompson comes close. For one thing, I think it’s more fair to say that before the internet, most Americans not in white-collar jobs (a much bigger field than just CT’s three exemplars) never typed anything that wasn’t a school assignment.
But in the broadest outlines, I totally agree — and it’s instructive that writing is SO dominant that it’s gobbling up all of a lot of what used to be oral exchanges in favor of secondary literacy. And that writers are now particularly tuned towards a sense of TIMING in what they write. After all, classical oral rhetoric is where kairos, the Greek term for a sense of timing, moment, context, comes from:
Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
The thing about kairos that doesn’t come across in the plain-sense translation Thompson offers is that it’s all about TIME. Timing, the moment of utterance, the moment of the speech, the sense of THIS moment in all of the times and places in history to give THIS speech. If chronos is cosmic time, the structure, the long duration, kairos is the event, the time when Things Happen. Cicero writing to Marc Antony, “you are Rome’s Helen of Troy,” knowing this will be read, out loud, by a reader who does not know what it says, in the Senate when Cicero himself is high-tailing it out of town, that he will be and has been part of the disaster he’s describing … That is kairos.
Writers coming of age today understand kairos because they write in time. And in-time. Has there ever been a moment where non-professionals have had to write so much in such an accelerated sense of time? In a not-quite-real-time, but a nearly-synchronized time, which is still nevertheless the quasi-timeless time of writing?
In fact, I think this is the proper philosophical response to “While I Was Away.” Kairos Amok! (which is to say, chaos.)
I’ve still got this video on the brain, all day today, but if you want to see kairos (in every sense) in action, watch this again.