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Print is a good read: Print 21 magazine article

Thursday, 04 June 2009
By Print21

Is the shift in communication to an online world responsible for a decline in standards of literacy? Phillip Lawrence thinks so and believes that printers should be telling their customers the same thing too.

I fear the battle has been lost for the printing industry when it comes to responding to criticisms that have been put to it in regard to the environment. When people think of printing they can’t help but think of trees and paper, and how trees are cut down to make paper. In the place of printing, companies and governments shift their mass communications online to web pages, broadcast emails and text messages. So not only has printing the challenge of the environment, but there are also alternative methods of mass communication that traditional customers can now use.

Any attempt the printing industry makes to justify its environmental performance is only in response to the intense pressure put on it by the community and may simply be seen as argumentative. The industry has an uphill battle regaining the dominant position as the mass communication medium that it once had.

However, printing is much more than paper made from trees put through a printing machine. It is, and has been for hundreds of years, the staple form of mass communication. Human society in its modern form is here because of print. The industrial revolution, the start of the modernisation of man, was possible because of the rapid communication of ideas around the world in printed books. Without print, some of the world’s most significant inventions would not have developed any further than ideas in someone’s head had they not been communicated to other scholars and inventors who helped develop the technologies further.

So print, historically, has had a lot to offer mankind as a communication methodology and, surely, there is still some value in this communication today. Few, if any, other technologies are able to develop the same amount of academic stimulus and learning as print. There is enough academic study in peer-reviewed research which shows that, compared to any other form of mass communication, the information that is presented on a printed page is far more readily learnt than information displayed on any other media.

Dumb terminals
Before the last Federal election, Kevin Rudd held up a laptop computer and said that every secondary school student would have access to a laptop computer if his government was elected. Research shows that children cannot learn from computers. In fact, in 2007, the New South Wales HSC English curriculum teaches banned computers from the classroom and their course. They said computers were in no way a replacement for books and had resulted in new students producing second-class work. A report from the Royal Economic Society in London in 2008 revealed that, in a study of 100,000 students in 31 countries around the world, learning from computers in fact made students more dumb.

In another recent report, handheld games designed to keep the human mind active in fact had quite the opposite effect when used for any extended length of time. However, the results for reading a book or doing a crossword were far more effective. Other academic research into a term called Print Rich Society, where some communities are stripped of any printing, reveals that the result is social upheaval and community breakdown as people are unable to communicate effectively with each other.

Academics and educators know that printing as a form of communication delivers information in a linear form. In other words, the reader develops the story in their mind as they progressively take it in from the written words, at the reader’s own speed. When this is done, the reader is able to construct complex concepts. In other words, the reader can make decisions and understand why those decisions have to be made and what consequences will come from those decisions. However, in the case of other forms of multimedia, information is fed to the viewer or reader in an omni-directional fashion. This means that information is coming to the reader at different rates and in an order not controlled by the author. In this case, the reader is able to jump quickly to a conclusion and make a decision rapidly. However they don’t have the benefit of the complex concept being understood and therefore cannot comprehend the significance of any consequences.

A Nobel sentiment
What this all means is that printing has much more to offer than the fact that you can sit in bed and read a book. Printing as a communication method is completely different to other forms of mass communication and is the foundation of human literacy.

Academic research shows that shifting away from printing undermines literacy standards of the community. An OECD report released in early 2008 identified that literacy rates in Australia and New Zealand had declined significantly since the early 90s. In 2007, a group of 500 English authors petitioned the Brown government for an investigation into why English young adults had declined significantly in their literacy rates from the early 1990s. Perhaps it was because the internet started in the early 90s.

In 2007, Doris Lessing, the British-Zimbabwean author, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Everyone involved in the printing industry should read her Nobel Prize lecture and send a copy to their customers. And when a customer moves away from print to the online publishing of their documents and packaging, they will know that they have had a hand in debasing the literacy levels of Australian society.

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