Interview with David R. Olson

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David R. Olson is University Professor Emeritus of cognitive sciences at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto). Influenced by Jack Goody’s work, he studied with Jerome Bruner, and has been particulary interested, in many books including A world on paper, by the consequences in thinking and cognition implied by the emerging of writing and reading.

We already published on some extracts taken from his books about literacy or school as an institution. In fall 2009, he friendly accepted to answer our questions and we are now publishing his interview right below.




Based on your analysis of the notion of « literacy », could you explain us how you understand the current technological and cultural changes, i.e. the fact that we are entering the age of the digitalisation of writing and reading ? According to you, how important are, those changes from a historical viewpoint ? How would you define them ? What are the opportunities and dangers that they might represent in terms of human culture ?

It is difficult to anticipate the cultural importance of a new technology.  Clearly digitalization has opened up new and rapid modes of communication, linking people in new ways within existing communities and creating new ones-- chat groups and so on.  However, historically and culturally, the big transformations reflected the invention of writing systems, whatever their form, and the invention of print.  The former was important because it gave permanence to the word, allowing and inviting people to look more carefully at language itself.  So we got the invention of logic and more specialized forms of discourse including "scholarly" language.  The second, printing, was important in that it altered readership dramatically, allowing everyone, or almost everyone, to become a participant in the discourse.  As we say, it democratized literacy.  So, what does digitalization add?  Less to literacy, I suspect, than to economics, manufacturing, social planning (airline ticket bookings and the like).  Literacy, as a matter of extending the uses of language, so far as I can tell, has not changed much.

Could you give us more details about what you meant when you wrote, in your article dedicated to the modes of reading and writing from the alphabet to the Internet, that in the era of digital writing "the reader becomes responsible" ?

I suppose I meant that with such an abundance of written material, the role of editor-- namely what to read, what to trust, what to pass on to others-- falls to the reader.  We can no longer so easily rely upon authorities to tell us what to believe.  I suppose that is further "democratization" in that everyone can now participate and form their own opinions, but at the loss of mechanisms for evaluating the quality and truth of what is written.  There is no longer the Church or the State to tell us what we must believe.

How do you think the school system, which is based on book reading, should react both institutionally and pedagogically, to the deep technological and cultural transformations we are currently undergoing ? What should the school systems and teachers do regarding “new technologies” as a whole ? How do you think they should deal with the way “digital natives” use them ?

The school should keep reading and writing showing children  how to understand various kinds of documents and how to write their own.  Computers find their place in this system as tools for writing and for looking up information without seriously altering the traditional focus on the uses of writing.  Printing tended to individualize learning-- remember the old days of silent classrooms?-- although modern schools tend to rely much more on group reading and writing and talking.  Computers may be useful for collaborative learning too.  It remains to be seen.  Kids do talk to each other on their iphones but is it not clear it helps to think about a topic.  Computers may help students to collaborate but it remains to be seen how classrooms use them.  We cannot expect simple consequences of digitalization; it depends on where they are found to be useful.

What do you think of Google’s initiative concerning printed book digitalisation and the free access to them? Do you share Robert Darnton’s fears about it ?

I thought Darnton's book rather trivial.  He had little or nothing to say; like me he is waiting to see what happens.

How do you envisage the coming age of « digital bureaucracy », in which a consumer can access digital documents and whole libraries but can also be exposed to electronic wiring and profiling ?

Yes, we have that, or almost have that now.  Except for rural areas, there is no limitation on access to information.  The bottleneck is in usage.  It will always take serious, thoughtful people to make something out of the available information.  I have read hundreds of books about literacy; the problem is to make a comprehensible theory of all of that stuff.  Information is only an tool to the formation of knowledge.  Knowledge is the problem, not informational access alone.

You seem to consider digitalization just as a moment inside the print era of writing and reading, rather than a  « big transformation » of literacy. Don’t you think these changes could have wider cultural, cognitive and epistemological consequences, specially because of what you called « the loss of mechanisms for evaluating the quality and truth of what is written » ?

It is universally acknowledged that speech, that is, the competence for speech, is the competence that more or less defines us as human.  Nothing approaches speech in significance.  Secondly, the representation of speech in writing is the second major feature of humans in most and certainly the most advanced societies.  Mathematical notation is perhaps the third, giving us access to science.  Fourth is computing languages that make the digital universe possible.  The uses of computing for advanced science, for social organization, for pre- planning, for design and the like is significant.  But the implications of computing for human cognition, that is for thinking and for extending the uses of mind, are either small or unknown.  Certainly, computing allows new levels of animation and computer programs can organize missions to the moon.  But mostly the uses of digital technology for ordinary people in ordinary life is small compared to writing, mathematics, and certainly in comparison to speech.

Amazon has just launched « Kindle », its electronical reader. Do you think that this kind of devices will change the way we read and relate to writing ? More generally, can’t we say that after the « word on paper » we’ve began entering into something like a « word on screen » ?

Writing, I believe, brought language and words in particular into consciousness, making words and language something to think about.  Books exploit that new awareness as well as further develop it.  Kindle make books handy.  The promise of electronic readers is that it makes books available to a broader audience just as printing once did.  I see Kindle as a charming alternative to buying books not as a revolutioinarly technology.  Computing and computer science make up new medium of representation and, as I mentioned above, have changed our sciences and our economy.  But few people learn to program, to write programs to carry out our projects, or to use computer technologies for other intellectual purposes.  We benefit from the products of those who do but as yet there is no move to teach us to use computing in everyday life.  On the other hand, we all talk and read and write.  Perhaps there will be a day when writing programs is so easy that we will make a habit of doing it and of seeing outself as expressions of some program (like a Cyborg).  It'll be a while.



David R. Olson is University Professor Emeritus of cognitive sciences at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto).