Sisyphus in Mississippi
The Los Angeles Times published a great “Column One” story yesterday, entitled “For Delta Librarian, The End.”
In it, Ronnie Wise retires as the chief librarian of Bolivar County, Mississippi, which has one of the highest illiteracy rates of any county in the US. Guess how high? 41%. Yes, you read that correctly. And the reason it isn’t higher is because of Ronnie Wise and the library system-sponsored literacy classes he created. The Sisyphusian struggle he and his coworkers wage against poverty, indifference, politics, racism, crime, etc. is the most important social work I have seen done anywhere in the US. And for some reason that Ronnie Wise refuses to share, he has chosen to stop. He has had enough.
The article brings up three issues that interest me.
1) Books are not a dead technology. Literature and reading are vitally important. The irony is that these people are not living in the 21st Century. They’re not even in the 20th. For them, like those who lived from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, books still hold the keys to escape, entertainment, knowledge and self-sufficiency. For these descendents of slaves, they hold the keys to freedom. The “Neil Postman” side of me loves that. Freedom isn't given to you courtesy of MySpace or Google. Freedom is the ability to take your mind elsewhere, using only your own imagination and intelligence and some wood pulp. This is what creates the potential for informed citizens and participatory democracy. And happiness. Not the Internet.
2) It also ties in with the theory of literature developing social empathy (see my essay “Empathy in the Time of Technology” on my website). Illiteracy is the mind killer, as much as fear. In fact, the former begets the latter.
3) How can we ‘talk the talk’ of new communication technologies if people can’t read? Computers are still text-dependent and $100 MIT laptops to developing countries are meaningless if you can’t read the text. (And what about the poor this country???) We need to ‘walk the walk’ first with universal literacy or the haves/have-nots gap widens to a chasm.
I realize I mention Neil Postman a lot. That’s because he’s really important to the entire debate of the role of technology in society. If you haven’t read “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” and/or “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” then you should. They should be required reading for every college-educated person, but if you are a scientist/technologist, you should read “Technopoly” right now. Don’t wait. You can’t consider yourself ethically or morally consistent if you don’t grok his message. You don’t have to like him, because you probably won’t. He’s the archetypal academic curmudgeon. You don’t have to agree with him, although I’d be surprised if you didn’t at some level. I personally think he’s right on the money. You just have to “get it” and apply a level of self-consciousness to your work (and life) that I believe is avoided in science education and industry, generally. If I were to recommend either one to a general reader, I’d still say read “Technopoly” since both books cover much the same philosophical ground, but “Technopoly” is broader in scope, more recent and its thesis is more powerful. Then for fun, read “Amusing…” and see just how remarkable and prescient his book is, over 20 years after he wrote it, in dissecting how television has destroyed American political, social and cultural discourse. What is chilling is how so much of the book could simply replace the word ‘television’ with ‘Internet’ and continue to be true…