As I See It: The Difference Maker
December 1, 2008 Victor Rozek
It is difficult to find the silver lining in the daily litany of financial disasters and desperate, ineffective bailouts. Somber pronouncements of impending help notwithstanding, the economy has been crippled, and the greed of the few will impose suffering on the many. If, however, there is a ray of hope in which the IT community is entitled to bathe, it is the fact that IT professionals are–generally speaking–intelligent.
Don’t for a moment discount the economic value of intelligence (especially when coupled with honesty). Increasingly, it is a virtue in short supply. Perhaps the most significant division in the country–more serious than divisions based on race, class, or gender; more differentiating than the divide between urban and rural, or red state and blue state–is the ability to think.
Or so says Chris Hedges, a respected journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner. His concerns are summarized in a recent article called America the Illiterate. In it, he notes that “nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year.” Think of that next time you write a user’s manual. As a result we live in two Americas, he says. “One America, the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth.”
Across the divide lives the other America, now the majority which, according to Hedges, “exists in a non-reality-based belief system.” This portion of America depends almost exclusively on “skillfully manipulated images for information.” It has trouble differentiating between truth and lies. “It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion [and often anger] by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection.”
Hedges looks at historic public debates to track the decline in literacy, and although his focus is political, his findings have profound workplace implications. He cites an analysis by the Princeton Review of transcripts from various presidential debates dating back to Lincoln-Douglas in 1858. The literacy level of the transcripts was determined “using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text.”
Here’s what they found. When Lincoln debated Douglas (debates, incidentally, that lasted hours in an era when people had attention spans not measured in nanoseconds), “the scores were 11.2 and 12.0 respectively,” meaning the discourse was geared to people with an 11th or 12th grade education. By the time Kennedy debated Nixon, “candidates spoke in language used by 10th graders.” In the 1992 debates between Clinton, Bush I, and Ross Perot, Clinton managed a 7th grade presentation while his opponents spoke on a 6th grade level. Similar 6th and 7th grade presentations were evident during the 2000 debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“In short,” says Hedges, “today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level.” And they didn’t even study this most recent election in which communication went completely non-verbal with smirks and sly winking substituting for content.
Today there are about 8 million adults who managed to graduate high school without the ability to read. Another 50 million people read but only at a fourth-grade or fifth-grade level. Even college graduates eschew the written word. Hedges reports that “42 percent of college graduates never read a book after they finish school.” And last year, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy a single book.
I’d like to think they’re trying to save trees, but I doubt it.
All of this translates to a large segment of the workforce that can’t think for itself because it apparently doesn’t think at all. It is a workforce best suited for highly structured, repetitive work, such as manufacturing and assembly, much of which, unfortunately, has moved abroad.
If there is good news in these bleak economic times, it is that with such a large segment of the population unable to perform intellectually demanding work, the competition for those who can will intensify. Workers who are creative, analytical, and able to solve problems will be in especially high demand and should remain reasonably well compensated. Fortuitously, these are precisely the skills required of IT professionals.
Ironically, it can be argued that the spread of information technology actually enables illiteracy by making it all but unnecessary to think or read. Television supplies what passes for thought; images substitute for reading. With the explosion of video and graphic interfaces, pictures and icons have all but replaced the written word; attention spans have shrunk like wool in the dryer, and entertainment value has become more important than substance. Nor is critical thinking required to join the technology club. Very sophisticated technology has become widely affordable and is available to very unsophisticated users. Televisions, computers, Internet access, cell phones, text messaging devices; all facilitate the reduction of complex issues to snapshots and sound bites.
For many, the last election, Hedges would agree, was a battle of dueling slogans: “Yes We Can” versus “Maverick.” In terms of symbolic narratives, it was a contest between intelligence and manliness. But maybe things are improving: it only took an economic collapse for the intelligence narrative to win.
Some degree of simplification is probably inevitable if only because so many chunks of our time are devoted to our various gadgets. We move at the speed of gratification from one device to another. IT toys dominate large portions of our day, leaving no time for simply thinking. When it comes to technology, perhaps the distinguishing difference between “literate” and “illiterate” users is this: the literate user will employ technology to formulate and articulate his thoughts; while the illiterate user will exploit technology as a substitute for thought.
The non-reality-based community can be thankful that the nation is in less trouble than it could be, in part because all of the systems created by programmers are still functioning. IT is the infrastructure of the modern economy and we can take some comfort from the fact that it will be in place when conditions improve.
Intelligence has always been the difference maker. For better or worse, it is perhaps the most important way in which people are not created equal. The irony is that the more widely available literacy has become, the less it appears to be valued.
It’s been a long time since smarts were chic. (Geeks were trendy, but never really chic.) The erosion of respect for intelligence has been slow and is evident in the popular culture, although the outright hostility toward “elitism” (meaning intelligence, not wealth) is relatively new.
From 1959 to 1970, a college-level quiz show aired on television. The GE College Bowl featured two four-member teams representing prestigious universities that competed by answering questions that spanned the totality of human knowledge. History, science, mathematics, art; nothing was off limits. I watched it as a kid, thrilled when I could answer the rare question. Though it was meant to be entertaining, it was, without apology, intelligent entertainment.
There would be no audience for such a show today. The majority Hedges identifies would not find it entertaining or inspiring. Now we get Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
I hope topping a 5th grader isn’t of much interest to the IT community. But if it is, don’t tell me. I’d rather die ignorant.