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Literacy and Democracy

The internet kept coming up sporadically over the weekend as I was thinking about The Next Democracy and, I think, rightly so. It’s difficult to imagine the future of civic engagement, including political engagement, as taking anything other than an increasingly online form as the idea of community itself becomes increasingly oriented around online communities of interest. This naturally led to some talk about the need to expand access to broadband, which I certainly agree with.

But a more fundamental issue than whether or not people can avail themselves of a home internet connection is that a terrifyingly large proportion of Americans can’t read and internet access isn’t going to be very helpful absent literacy:

The way this is defined, “consulting reference materials to determine which foods contain a particular vitamin” qualifies you for intermediate prose literacy. So in addition to double digit numbers of people who really can’t read at all, we have around 40 percent of the population in a situation where they have no real practical ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the information revolution.

In another vein, this is part of the context that the chattering classes seem to me to be overlooking in a lot of conversations about the future of newspapers. We already have a society in which people are extremely ill-informed and in which there are large, systematic lapses in the practical availability of information to broad numbers of people. The impoverished democracy that many people fear might arrive in the future is basically the world we’re living in right now. This is also why I think it’s a mistake for progressives to downplay the importance of an improved education system — a more literate population would be a population that’s much more capable of organizing itself in defense of policies that trend toward broadly based prosperity.

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