keith_devlin's picture
Mathematician; Executive Director, H-STAR Institute, Stanford; Author, Finding Fibonacci
The Death of the Paragraph

The most significant unreported story? The mathematician in me screams that this is a paradox. The moment I write about it, it ceases to be unreported. That aside, there are so many reporters chasing stories today, it would be hard to point to something that has the status of being a "story" but has not yet been reported. On the other hand, as Noam Chomsky is fond of reminding us, there's a difference between being reported somewhere, by somebody, and being covered by the major news organizations.

I'll settle for a trend. I'm not sure if it will turn out to be a story, but if it does it will be big. It's the death of the paragraph.

We may be moving toward a generation that is cognitively unable to acquire information efficiently by reading a paragraph. They can read words and sentences — such as the bits of text you find on a graphical display on a web page — but they are not equipped to assimilate structured information that requires a paragraph to get across.

To give just one example, a recent study of 10,000 community college students in California found that, in the 18-25-year age group, just 17% of the men could acquire information efficiently through reading text. For the remaining 83%, the standard college textbook is little more than dead weight to carry around in their bag! The figure for women in the same age group is a bit higher: just under 35% can learn well from textually presented information.

These figures contrast with those for students aged 35 or over: 27% of males and over 42% of females find it natural to learn from reading. Of course, that's still less than half the student population, so any ideas we might fondly harbor of a highly literate older generation are erroneous. But if the difference between the figures for the two generations indicates the start of a steady decline in the ability to read text of paragraph length, then a great deal of our scientific and cultural heritage is likely to become highly marginalized.

Half a century after the dawn of the television age, and a decade into the Internet, it's perhaps not surprising that the medium for acquiring information that both age groups find most natural is visual nonverbal: pictures, video, illustrations, and diagrams. According to the same college survey, among the 18-25 age-group, 48% of males and 36% of females favor this method of acquiring information. The figures for the over-35s are almost identical: 46% and 39%.

If these figures reflect the start of a story that has not been reported, then by the time somebody does write it, there may not be many people around able to read it. The social, cultural, scientific, and political consequences of that are likely to be major.