By Zubeida Mustafa
FIRST it was television. Then came the internet. Our old and familiar friend — the book — has had many detractors. When television made its debut in Pakistan in the mid-1960s it was generally said that the idiot box had pulled away readers from their books. Now this charge is levelled against the digital medium. But the fact is that Pakistan has never been famous for its reading culture.
This has been my observation of decades that our society has an aversion for the printed word as testified by our high illiteracy rate. Ask any librarian, bookseller or publisher and s/he will confirm it. The only books that sell are textbooks and the key/guide books, that should actually be banned. What would teachers do then? Believe me, they are the ones who depend on them more than the children.
I was therefore shocked when I received a video by email in which the speaker (who appeared to be a Pakistani) actually exhorted the viewers not to waste time on reading books. He suggested that all the knowledge and information we needed for success was available on the internet. This is what you call guts.
I decided to check up on this issue. The first who came to mind was of course Bill Gates who I know is a book lover in spite of being the Father of Microsoft and having so much digital material at his fingertips. What is the hallmark of his personal blog called Gates Notes? It has a book section that contains a wealth of information on the books Bill Gates is reading. So I dashed off an email asking how many books did Gates read. I promptly received a reply, “50 in a year”.
We need to worry about the adverse effects of digital stuff on a child’s health and mental capacities.
And how did the blog begin? Initially Gates loved to jot down notes and comments in the margin of the book he was reading. He would share these on an email to a list of friends.
The blog followed when Gates decided to expand his readership.
I just can’t understand how a book by Hemingway (on any medium — audio, Kindle or simply printed on newsprint) can be displaced by a speech by a fool summarising it. I ask Zia Akbar, a programmer and an avid reader of books, if he thought the computer would displace books. His own experience is instructive.
He says, “The first computer I encountered was a handheld programmable device not much more than a calculator. I was in my teens. I learned to work with it in BASICS and appreciated what I could do, both as a user and ‘under the hood’ as a budding programmer. Bur I should add, this could not substitute for a book. There was no internet available to me at the time. Even now, after looking up things on the internet, I still seek out books to deepen my knowledge.”
Zia warns me why computers are a threat to the book. For most children now, the first computer they come across is in the form of a tablet.
It is interactive and tactile — a device a child can reach for. He presses part of the screen, and the response of the device is immediate and gratifying in sensorial terms. And with the rubbish that is available nowadays, these responses teach the child nothing, says Zia.
The fact is that the written word is losing its charm for youngsters addicted to computers.
I am told that even Facebook is no longer attracting users as much as Instagram, which is more graphic.
What we need to worry about is the adverse effects of digital stuff on the child’s health and mental capacities. Leading scientists have been expressing scepticism about artificial intelligence. As for myself I am scared of AI. It is invading our daily life, I don’t know how many email users are using Google’s Smart Reply which has been dubbed as an example of what ‘real AI’ will look like.
Facebook is already robbing us of our diversity. Everyone is either amazing or super. In emails your answers are readymade and many options are presented. A young student trying to learn English asked what the smart replies were. I warned her against using them. “You will forget how to spell thank you,” I said. And I am not too far from the truth. In the days of yore our telephone index used to be stored in our memory. Now people can’t remember their own mobile phone numbers.
As for books versus the digital, I will let Iftikhar Shallwani, the library-loving commissioner of Karachi, have the final word. While correcting a statement wrongly attributed to him by the press, he wrote, “San Francisco is the hub of (digital) technology but there people still read books and the libraries are full of readers.”