Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

I was happily shocked to see yesterday’s cover story in Parade Magazine, “What Are We Afraid Of?”

what-are-you-afraid-of-in-2015

What surprised me was that a mainstream, read-by-millions, middle-of-the-road, USofA kinda magazine was talking Americans out of their panic room mentalities toward a crazy thesis: You’re pretty darn safe.

Well, the article didn’t say that exactly, but nowadays we worry more about highly unlikely things like ebola and terrorism than real dangers (like texting while driving and the flu). People who should know better, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey*, think we live in a dangerous time despite the fact that death by tuberculosis, murder, natural disaster, smoking, fire, war, polio–even heart disease and stroke–are becoming less and less likely.

The Parade article breaks down in simple ways how we evolved for threats on the East African savanna–dangers that don’t exist for us anymore–not for our current threats, most of which are self-made (like obesity, being inside moving automobiles, and suicide). But if we don’t use the rational part of our mind, fear can rule us, especially with a media environment that can report every bit of bad (though rare) news in gory detail.

So remember that flu, not ebola, might kill you. Gluten won’t cause you health problems (barring celiac disease), but make sure you get enough fiber. And for heaven’s (and my family’s) sake please get all your shots. No one gets autism from vaccines.

*”I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” from Cato Institute website

 

This Hyperliterate Era

Are we worse writers today than folks from previous generations? Does our two-thumbed “txtng” make us literary cretins (and bad spellers)? Is “the death of the handwritten letter” a fait accompli?

My mother, bless her heart, bought me The Art of the Handwritten Note for Christmas twelve years ago. I still have it:

Art Handwritten Note

This is what she inscribed on the title page:

Dear Henry,

Your extraordinary grandmother would like you to have this little book! She was a beautiful person and writer, too.

Much love,

Mom

I’m really not raggin’ on Mom right now. Love you, Mom! I share this because it expresses a sentiment of many millions of people: We can’t write anymore. The idea is that our parents and grandparents (all of whom wrote in flowing cursive no doubt) wrote deeper, more personal, more heartfelt handwritten letters. All this newfangled “txtspk” with two thumbs has ruined our spelling at the very least and made us terrible writers at worst.

I’m currently reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The author makes a compelling case that while our online writing may look less civilized than our paper and pen missives of the past, online writing in its many forms is making us more, not less, literate.

First, he makes the case that the “good old days” of letter writing were not as good as we think. At the height of the golden age of English letter writing–the end of the 19th century–most upper crust Britons received only one or two letters a week. And this was in an era of junk mail (albeit much less than today), business correspondence, and mail scams. Like today, many letters back then were not from friends and loved ones.

Second, in American education, reading has been emphasized more than writing. Children were told to read everyday, but much less often were they told to write every day. Reading was to be done at school and at home and at the public library. Writing? At school and maybe a little for homework. Nowadays, most of us are writing throughout the day, via email or text. Clearly we are writing much more than we used to. But does all this writing count when it’s “txtspk?”

Thompson points out that much of our writing today happens in real time. You send an email or text and you might get an immediate response, which of course was not the case in the “golden age” of letter writing. Yes, writers might have been more thoughtful as missives were less frequent, but the “real time” effect makes emailing and texting, at its best, more like “real time” dialogue and discourse. People actually exchange, debate and refine ideas in emails, blogs, and on social media. Online, people have real-time conversations about things that matter. Yes, there’s plenty of dross in online writing–we see it on our screens every day–but there’s also a lot of outstanding content out there written by everyday people.

And the internet has made everyone a publisher. If you write on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, there’s an audience, and an audience has a big effect. Many of us have hundreds of friends. Did such an audience exist for nearly everyone “back in the day?” The audience means “we know someone’s looking,” and we better write well. If you want to be taken seriously online, you need to write clearly and logically, and concede points when faced with strong evidence against your arguments. We have all tuned out the people who send cat video links and spam. The people whom we pay attention to are clever, fun, smart…they’re good writers!

I’ll blog more about the book as I make my way through it. (I’ve read about a quarter of it.)

And Mom, I promise I’ll write more handwritten letters…