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Would you rather be blind or deaf?

I love those classic conversation starters. Has Earth been visited by extraterrestrials? Does President Bush need to carry money? Why is it that, after making love, men fall asleep and women wake up?

Let’s focus on the blind/deaf question. Genius overcomes many difficulties. As evidence, we have the pantheon of blind and deaf artists, ranging from Beethoven to Goya to Milton to Ray Charles. According to neuropsychologist and author Oliver Sacks (in his book Seeing Voices), whether it’s better to be blind or deaf depends on how old you are. For an adult, blindness and deafness are about equally problematic. But for a child, there is no question: it’s better to be blind. Anyone who has had the opportunity to teach a deaf child knows this. Hearing is the primary channel through which we receive language, and all of those incoming words downloaded into our brains carry a wealth of emotional and cognitive apparatus that structures and empowers our imagination. Language is the mind’s opposable thumb.

Whether it is a book, a pencil or a computer, technology deeply affects the way we learn, and interact and create with, languages. The word “hello” came to prominence in English because of the telephone. Or con-sider the emergence of mass public literacy. It wasn’t born in a vacuum. It is largely a technological by-product of the printing press-and it’s been greatly affected by the rise of television and other media that compete for our attention. The question is, how will future information tools influence our relationship with languages?

David Sarnoff, an early president of RCA, believed that the broadcast of radio and television would spread English as the world’s unifying language. It did and it does. More re-cently, the World Wide Web has further fostered English as the global lingua franca. Visit a developing country and you find that people seeking better lives see two clear paths: learning English and mastering computer skills. The two are intertwined.

Historically, technology has had a huge impact on the use of language. Around 1811, the steam engine collided with the printing press, and the result was as explosive then as the collision of computers with the telephone network is now. The rotary-driven steam press printed hundreds of times faster than any other available technology-so fast that publishers couldn’t afford to feed enough paper into those voracious machines. In the 1850s, some clever Germans invented a cheap pulp papermaking process. The new stuff became known as newsprint, since that’s largely what it was used for, and with the force of this flow, the modern newspaper took shape.

Soon it became clear that paper was no longer the scarce resource. Nor were printing presses, or even news. The scarce resource? Readers. In 1858, only one in 20 British army recruits could read. Other European societies had similar levels of literacy. And so, in countries across Europe, as well as in America, policymakers began mandating more systematic schooling. By 1900, literacy among British recruits had jumped to more than 85 percent and the novel had become a mainstream art form. Mass public literacy, therefore, was an outgrowth of a burst of technology that liberated a huge quantity of text, and then encouraged an ensuing ballet of sorts among policymakers, educators, authors and printers.

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