The written word has come a long, long way since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 16th century – from Shakespeare folios, through Gothic horror, feminist samizdat, modern journalism and, of course, Fake News. But it’s not just the method that’s changing but the way we read. Just a decade ago it seemed impossible we’d all get our news not just from cellphones but third-party, social media platforms. Today most of us can barely get out of bed without checking our news feeds, photos or DMs.
Perhaps that’s not great news. What is, is that global literacy rates have soared. Fifty years ago almost a quarter of young people couldn’t read. By 2016 that was less than 10%. Over 750 million adults are illiterate, however – which is why the United Nations has occasions like International Literacy Day, welcomed in countries across the planet with a host of schemes and drives to get people reading.
With that in mind, Red Herring chronicles some of the newer technological breakthroughs that have changed the way we read forever. Tell us what you think we’ve missed in the comments below. Then, tonight, pick up a book.
1. Home computers
Until the first home computers arrived in 1975, most all humans got information from books, newspapers or the television. Then along came IBM and the world changed almost overnight. Nowadays the idea of a home without some sort of computer is barely imaginable, even in the developing world. And though its black-and-green interface seems a galaxy away from today’s pin-sharp screens, there isn’t much to differentiate those early reading experiences from those on a current home computer – at least, in the sense you’re reading words. And that’s about it, really.
NuvoMedia unveiled the first e-reader in 1998, the Rocket eReader, and made its Mountain View, California-based creators a pretty penny when the company exited to Gemstar-TV Guide just two years later for $187m. Since then almost every major electronics manufacturer has tried its hand at the product. But the most popular by far has been Amazon’s Kindle (unless you count Apple’s iPad): it peaked at 23.2m units in 2011, and has since tailed off to just 7.1m sales in 2016. That has prompted many in the media to herald the death of the e-reader – though the enduring popularity of e-books (266m were sold in 2017 and comprise a quarter of all book sales) suggests it has at least left a hefty footprint on the publishing industry.
Are you reading this article on a smartphone? Probably, according to research: last year 85% of American adults received some of their news from mobile devices – a huge increase from 2016’s 72%, and just 54% in 2013. That has changed not only the way we consume, but the entire news media. Imagine Breitbart, Slate or Vox existing in a print world? As the media industry has democratized it has brought some unsavory players, and so-called ‘fake news’ has become a bete noire of the digital media industry. Time will tell whether it beats truthful reporting. This writer hopes not – but who knows for sure.