GR8 Debate digital culture is killing reading

The night I held that little hand
It made my sad heart sing
Twas the loveliest hand I've ever held
Four aces and a King

… recited Bruce Woolley as part of his argument as second speaker for the affirmative that Digital culture is killing reading and writing. This was the topic of the Gr8 Debate that drew over 100 attendees to the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) on 22 August 2012. Both sides battled it out with a diverse array of serious and humorous academic arguments, thoroughly pleasing the audience.

84.GR8 debate logo

For the affirmative, arguing that digital culture is indeed having an adverse effect on our reading and writing skills were:

  • Natalie Bochenski - Queensland state political reporter for 4BC news, author, director and travel enthusiast
  • Bruce Woolley - international journalist and correspondent and sessional academic in journalism at QUT
  • Erica Hateley - lecturer, author and researcher in children’s and adolescent literature at QUT.

And for the negative, convincing us that digital culture is not the death of reading and writing were:

  • John-Paul Langbroek - Queensland Government Minister for Education, Training and Employment and Member for Surfers Paradise
  • Jane Cowell - Director, Public and Indigenous Library Services at the State Library of Queensland
  • Marcus Foth – Associate Professor and author in Urban Informatics at QUT specialising in social media and mobile applications.

The debate was skilfully moderated by Peter Black, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at QUT, specialising in internet law, media law and the legal and policy issues surrounding social media.

The debate, jointly hosted by the QUT Information Professionals Alumni chapter and the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Queensland group, was organised in celebration of the National Year of Reading and explored how digital technologies such as iPads, social media and the instant internet culture impact upon our core, traditional abilities and views of reading and writing.

Image from Girl Clumsy website
Image from Girl Clumsy website at
Printed here with permission

First up was Natalie Bochenski, aka Girl Clumsy, for the affirmative, who brought down the house with her entertaining investigation into internet meme culture. After an introductory observation that reading Fifty Shades of Grey to 'see what all the fuss is about' was actually proof of the death of reading, Girl Clumsy launched into an exploration of memes – humorous picture-based snapshots, creatable by anyone, that tend to go viral on the web. The image shown here was just one example of many memes that drove home the message of the affirmative. The take-home message of the day was definitely ‘Ermahgerd’.

First up for the negative team, and highly anticipated, was Queensland Government Minister for Education, Training and Employment, John-Paul Langbroek, who argued that the more tools there are in the classroom, the more opportunities we have to teach our children. His arguments celebrated the linguistic flexibility of digital language and discussed that the efficiencies of such text speak have commonalities with the efficiencies of government. He also mentioned that there was a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey floating around in his ministerial car (presumably his wife's, he added).

Second up for the affirmative was Bruce Woolley, who got philosophical and lyrical through his inventive inclusion of poetry to demonstrate his point. He pondered the positive contribution of librarians and introduced the audience to ‘bibliotherapy’, which according to Wikipedia is an ‘expressive therapy that uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy’. After discussing the research that reading uses more parts of the brain than just playing computer games, he delighted the audience with the recital of a second poem and skilful application of the English language:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
So goes the age old rhyme.
But I know Rose's are blue,
and Violet's are red.
I've seen 'em,
Hanging on the line

Origin unknown

Next up for the negative team was Jane Cowell from the State Library of Queensland, who asserted that the human thirst to communicate will ensure the survival of reading and writing, in whatever state that might be. She recounted several examples of how digital culture supports reading, creating, writing and participating in a collaborative way; how tweeting can lead to a literate career; and how Fifty Shades of Grey is expanding reading to those who may not have read a book in years.

Wrapping up the case for the affirmative was Erica Hateley, who in her energetic fashion tackled the issue of digital rights in ebooks. She argued that there are too many limits on a reader’s digital rights, affecting their experience and engagement with an ebook, especially when ebooks are easily erased by stakeholders such as Amazon. She used the example of how digital culture shapes interaction with classics, stripping them bare and then causing greater culture divide. Thus, she proved her rightful place on the panel!

And finally to round out the negative was social media researcher, Marcus Foth, who talked about books (yes books!) and suggested that while the sales of reference works and guides are declining, fiction and children's books are in fact on the rise. As a social media researcher, he observed that much more reading happens now than before through email and social media, and that social media has even overtaken porn as the biggest thing on the web. He also floated the idea of using Twitter for the peer review process, which was emphatically endorsed by fellow academic, Peter Black, who has not yet managed to convince his dean of research that tweets are as good as academic articles.

It was a seriously close contest, but crowned the victors by the process of audience acclamation (and a special app on Peter Black's smartphone) were ... the Negative team! It's conclusive - Digital Culture is NOT killing reading and writing.

84.Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer Thomas

BA(En), MInfMgt (Library Studies), AALIA(CP)
Liaison Librarian, Creative Industries, QUT Library
President, QUT Information Professionals Alumni