A literate paradox
Originally posted on 23 September 2009 at www.crossmedialab.nl.
According to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) 97% of the population of men and women between 12 and 75 years have used the Internet in 2008. That is an amazing number, I’d say. 20% uses the Internet at somebody else’s place, like at a friend’s place, 47% uses the Internet at work and 18 % in school. 6% uses the Internet somewhere else, meaning in an Internet café, hotel, etc. So, what do these figures tell us? To be frank, I wouldn’t know.
These statistics tell us that Holland is extremely well covered with infrastructure. The Dutch are superbly interlinked with the rest of the world through the wonders of the Internet. But my core question is whether the Dutch are literate enough to deal with such formidable connectivity. The sole question is whether people can actually deal with all of these goodies from technology.
A couple of days ago, I read an article in ‘Parool’, our nation’s one and only city newspaper, about the number of illiterate people in The Netherlands. I was astonished that over 1.5 million (out of approx. 16.5 million) Dutch citizens are not able – or hardly – to read, let alone write. I had always thought that Holland was a country of cultivated culture with suburb (and foremost) writers, painters, documentarists, intellectuals, merchants and bankers, all in all, literate intellectuals. But roughly one out of 10 ‘Dutchies’ simply don’t know how to read and write! Yet, these assumed dumbos do something with the Internet, I presume, at least according to statistics. Are they only looking at pictures, or what?
As a pedigree marketer, I wonder what can be made out this latent paradox. Is it so that a fast minority of Internet users is literarily illiterate? And if the issue of illiteracy is a common yet taboo-sized issue, can it be altered? And, should it be?
If we compare the amount of visuals used in all different kind of media today with the amount of, say, twenty years ago, we observe an astonishing growth of pictures. For me, this trend raises associations with walking in medieval churches and looking at all the fine paintings on the walls. They show stories to an alleged illiterate audience (those old time comics were planned for the people then, not now).
In my marketing lectures I often say that the common medieval guy saw less visual messages in his entire life than a modern person sees in a day. Pictures are important nowadays. But pictures are not text. And people need understanding of text if they desire to write a SMS, an email, a blog entry; any form of participating in response facilitating media requires literacy. Yet, with apps like Twitter, how much text does one actually need? The answer: 140 characters. The rest is picture. But then again, every picture tells a story. Paradox revisited.