Google TV
Sony CEO Howard Stringer, left, and Intel CEO Paul Otellini at the launch of Google TV. Photo by AP
Text size
 AP
An iPad computer Photo by AP

The latest enterprise to be launched by Google, combining the most popular search engine in the world with television, highlights the dramatic change that has occurred in what it means to be literate today. Once it was enough just to know how to read for a person to understand what governments demanded and to be able to pray independently. Then came the need to know how to write and to respond to the never-ending font of information.

The literacy of the 21st century is different. It takes for granted not only the ability to read and write, something possessed by nearly everyone in the Western world, but also the ability to distinguish between what is relevant and what is extraneous, between what is correct and what is erroneous, and between what is appropriate and what is spurious.

For if it were not so, how would information consumers cope with the abundance that has been spread out before them?

If Google TV flourishes, it will transfer the age of inundation that has beset written materials in the past decades onto the screen. A press of the button today gleans data that it once took many hours or days, and sometimes overseas journeys, to obtain.

There are, however, built-in disadvantages that detract from having the world at your fingertips. One is the volume of information that a search on Google produces. Search "the State of Israel" (in quotes ) and you get 14,300,000 results in 0.23 seconds. Can you imagine anyone checking all of these, right up to the last page? What can they possibly contain, beyond multiple repetitions and items like inarticulate notes for high school civics exams?

A second disadvantage is the order in which the search engine displays the results, based on a formula dealing with the number of entries each site has registered, with the more popular listed first and the less popular at the end. This highlights yet another essential disadvantage: Those who have enough money and who can develop a search engine optimization formula can gain more hits and climb over more worthy sites on the results pages.

In this way, what at first looked like a marvelous tool for people wanting to learn has turned into an instrument manipulated by the powerful, who can use it to promote the information they produce.

These are mostly state bodies, large media organizations or willful participants who force Wikipedia - and I am speaking here of the Hebrew version - to maintain limits of expression.

The digital age has given people in the West the misleading impression that all the information in the world is at their fingertips, available for use at all times. Will young schoolchildren who have become accustomed to searching and quickly sifting through the mass of material to glean the correct answer be able, once they grow up, to distinguish between high and low culture, between what is important and what is popular, between what is a genuinely valuable asset and what is merely "cool"?

The new literacy differs from its predecessor in its demand for agile maneuvering through a flood of data. The technical mastery of reading and viewing is taken for granted. What is not is the new scale of values and the ability of Web surfers to decipher the information they have gathered and to use it wisely.

Also still unclear are the ways of overcoming the obstacles presented by the flood of information. It may be that technological progress will underline the need to stick to old methods, and familiarity with the cultural canon will accompany the leap into cyberspace that begins even before a child starts going to school.

It is possible that the most important subject in 21st century schools will be schlepping from bookstore to bookstore, theater to theater, concert hall to concert hall, and art show to art show. This may be the way to nurture the ability to distinguish between what is meaningful and what is merely popular.