Hi Dan,

Daniel Emory wrote:

> It?s estimated that 40% of the US adult population is non-literate,
> which means they don?t read books or newspapers. This has been
> accompanied by a rapid decline in the ability of college students to
> write a half-way decent paragraph in English. The California State
> College system, the largest in the nation, takes almost any applicant
> who got through high-school degree with half-way decent grades. But
> about 40% of its first year students are not capable of doing 
> college-level work, and thus their first year is dominated by
> remedial classes in English, Math and other subjects they should have
> mastered in high school.
> These declines all coincide with the growth of the internet, and the
> shift from obtaining knowledge from paper books to learning from
> feeble snippets of on-line text. The blogosphere, dominated by those
> who are at least competent in the English language, consists mainly
> of opinions unsupported by any factual basis.

Although I feel that what you are saying may well have merit, I'm 
reluctant to jump to any conclusions too quickly. A favourite example of 
misdirected causality is the inexplicable reduction in crime for young 
males in New York city. Politicians claimed for years that it was due to 
their "tough on crime" policy, yet the drop surpassed that of cities 
with similar policies. Eventually someone figured out that it coincided 
with abortion being made more freely available - less children being 
born into poor homes where they weren't wanted translated into fewer 
boys thinking crime was the way up and girls thinking pregnancy was. Of 
course it's not conclusive, but it's as plausible as the mismatched 
"tough on crime" line...

There could be an element of that in your reasoning, I feel. Whether 
information is to be delivered on paper or on screen doesn't predispose 
it to being written at a certain level of quality. Whether it's being 
delivered electronically or on paper, there will *always* be a need for 
people who are able to write clearly. Some information is too critical 
to risk misinterpretation.

It's certainly true that there's a lot of poor writing on the internet, 
but that's partly because there's so much information. Take this posting 
as a case in point - I don't claim to write with any particular 
proficiency, but you're reading it because it landed in your email. Had 
it not, it's extremely unlikely that we'd be exchanging letters about 
this topic, if for no other reason than the fact that we didn't realise 
the other was interested in it.

> When you read tomes from the 1990?s extolling the promise of
> hypertext to change the way people think and use information, (I
> recommend the ?Hypertext/Hypermedia Handbook by Berk and Devlin), you
> begin to realize that it?s promise was still-born. The hypertext
> pioneers envisioned a rich panoply of link types that would create
> hypertexts which were true ?searchable mazes? Frame Technology,
> beginning in FrameMaker 4, added a rich variety of hypertext link 
> types which would have realized that original vision.

True, but linking is difficult. It's easy if the ends of all of the 
links reside in your domain, but how do you know if the point within a 
document owned by someone else still means what it did when you first 
pointed at it? It's tough enough for a link to even know whether the 
document still exists, let alone how it might degrade gracefully to 
another resource, how to determine the impact of the missing link on the 
viability of the rest of the document, etc. It's still relatively early 
days and linking is one of the key components of a rich internet, so 
it's getting plenty of attention.

> When Adobe took over FrameMaker, it could have carried out that
> vision by implementing all of the FrameMaker link types in PDF. It
> failed to do so. And so, the HTML standard, with only the most
> primitive hypertext link type, became the standard. There was some
> hope that the XML standard would have rich linking capabilities. It
> added a few additional link types, but nowhere near enough to realize
> the original promise of hypertext.

You certainly could be on to something with that - one of the ways that 
FrameMaker could be kept relevant would be to concentrate heavily on 
linking, including to documents outside of the current book. PDF would 
provide a great platform for that - it might even be enough to increase 
the use of PDF on the internet. (They'd want to make loading a PDF 
quicker and less obvious first though.)

> Getting back to what I state in the first two paragraphs above, I
> maintain that the ability to acquire in-depth knowledge of a subject
> is a discipline which is difficult to master. And I have no doubt
> that well-written, well-organized paper books, particularly on
> difficult subjects, will continue to be the best way to acquire real,
> in-depth knowledge of a subject, and subsequently serve its owner as
> a valuable reference source.

In-depth knowledge isn't always desirable - the rapid growth of the 
internet is proof of that. If it was always desirable, the internet 
would not be as valuable a resource as it is, as it wouldn't satisfy 
people's requirements for the reasons that you cite.

That said though, there is truth to what you say - the real question is 
whether it matters. In my parent's day, neat cursive handwriting was 
very important. It was arguably less important in my day and for my 
daughter, it will be of little importance, as in her life, she will 
unquestionably use a keyboard or some other device far more than she 
ever writes with a ballpoint. The same is true of mathematics - you can 
do complex calculation on your phone now, so it's not critical that you 
understand logarithmic tables and the like. I don't think that it's 
better or worse, just different.


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