What makes this phenomenon so interesting is that it's one of the oldest tropes in the book, yet every generation finds new mileage in it: whenever a new form of media emerges, it will inevitably be decried as an unmitigated evil.
When I was growing up, and indeed well into the 1990's, it was axiomatic that television was as bad as the atomic bomb. It meant the decline of literacy, and even of rational thought. No one valued honest, deep discourse anymore, or meaningful relationships, because we were obsessed with "image", over someone's "authentic inner being", the kind of thing you got in books and letters. We spent too much time on the telephone, and not enough time writing billets-doux, got our news from vapid, feel-good presenters instead of thoughtful, well-read and travelled journalists, had our music filtered through a monolithic music industry geared to the lowest common denominator instead of listening to live performances by real artists, and our entertainment, a mindless parade of sitcoms, sex and violence, instead of well-crafted dramas and thought-provoking documentaries. You couldn't even protest this agenda, since the news media had such a stranglehold on popular opinion, that it was pointless to even send letters to your congressman or to the newspapers. Heck, you couldn't even find a good bookstore, unless you lived in a university town or in a large city, damning the general public to trashy paperbacks, and that other cultural cesspit, comic books. (Hey, I'm only reporting…)
Cultural pundits loved to rhapsodize about a lost past of passionate readers, of literate, well-adjusted young folks, of well-penned letters with pretty stamps and of well-written newspapers. In this world witty banter abounded in every city cafe, sage discourse around cracker barrels and neighborly chitchat on summer porches. Musical evenings there were when whole communities flocked to the Symphony, families sang around the piano and friends around a guitar. Reading, real reading was being curled up cosily by the fire on a rainy Fall afternoon, wrapped up in an afghan in a Federalist wing chair, reading a letterpress Edna St. Vincent Millay (from an appropriately quaint small bookseller) as the shadows darken in the grey garden outside the tall windows. It is on this basis that America was a republic in the classical sense, and a true democracy.
Then, we got the Internet.
All of a sudden, people started writing letters. The Great Classics were available, not as overpriced sets of books in someone else's home, but anywhere there was a computer and a connection. People suddenly found themselves having to read a great deal of the time (especially in those early days). Mp3.com meant that your garage band could be heard by people all over the globe. MUDs, MOOs, IRC, AIM and ICQ opened up the simple delight of being able to have an instant conversation, on nearly any topic, anytime you wanted, no matter what accidents of appearance or fortune had befallen you. Bloggers wrote everything from history-as-it-happened to thoughtful diaries about pets and cooking. Whole new forms of entertainment opened up: simulations, immersive environments and games of all kinds. All of these things came, not to passive "viewers", but to active "users" who "demanded" content, and were encouraged to upload content of their own, whether as comments, images, or video. Being that the Net was lovingly crafted, line by line, by literate, intelligent people, who understood themselves what it means to be the wallflower at the dance, last to be called at stickball, and were (mostly) progressive liberals, you'd think that the Net would be the darling of intellectuals world wide.
Not so. Instead, the Net, along with video games, and the like, have become the official whipping boy for whatever's wrong with America. (Well, that and global warming…) The sound of tweets and emails being written are considered to be no better than "cavemen grunting", to quote Anthony Eoslen, and everyone knows that PORNOGRAPHY is being seen by CHILDREN, which may have been disseminated by CHILDREN of other CHILDREN. Social networks, if not rife with pedophiles, are used to bully and harass, and arrange one-night stands with serial killers. Using text at all is supposed to be a "cold", "sterile" way to converse, that neglects a person's whole being, their facial expressions, touches, and appearance in favor of little characters on screen...can you stare into your beloved's eyes in chat? touch their face? Kiss them?...What a tragedy that all you have of a beautiful woman is a tiny picture and her words (when what you want her to do is shut up so you can concentrate on her boobs....)
Strange that we're so concerned, since even the written word, once, was considered by rabbis too vulgar a means of dissemination to express Holy Writ, and, in Greece, they pondered why one should read Homer when every well-bred Athenian knew the ancient lays by heart, with the appropriate music on the lyre? Reading novels causes all manner of problems, from having unrealistic expectations in life (Madame Bovary) to outright suicide (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Telephones could be used by criminals to coordinate plans, and who knows what your teen is talking about when she ties up the lines for hours at a time?
First, stop comparing apples to oranges. Most people, historically, would have been hopeless on the SAT, even if they were literate to begin with. Many of the greatest medieval scholars had access to less than a dozen books in their lives, and were therefore forced to read them slowly and repetitively, often aloud. (Even the Bible was usually condensed into a small multivolume library, of which many churches only had the Gospel & Psalms volume -- not by censorship, as you might imagine, but simply because they couldn't afford the other ones.)
Today, we would consider a kid who translated Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy from Latin at 14, as Queen Elizabeth did, to be some kind of prodigy. It was easy for her to learn Latin, because she was surrounded by people who knew Latin, was tutored in Latin, often heard Latin in church and other places, and was amply rewarded for knowing Latin. However given a current SAT, not even her knowledge of Latin and Greek root words would help her getting through Verbal, since many of the words we think of as being essential to learned discourse hadn't been invented yet and no one had thought to standardize spelling and grammar. As for the math, simple algebra (solving for unknowns and dealing with squares and cubes) was considered the work of specialists, who often had had to study and practice for decades before mastering these arcane techniques. Yet we routinely demand such mastery from middle-schoolers without too much trouble.
The Golden Age of American Literacy, which began somewhere in the early 19th century, crested somewhere around 1910, and broke around the Second World War, leaving only foam and bubbles by the Seventies, was less a vast popular movement than it was the purview of a comparatively small and privileged class, living mostly in the Northeast. The easy chair scenario previously alluded to, presupposes a lot in terms of your bank account, or at least the bank account of someone near and dear to you. (This person might be on the staff of a magazine which prides itself on not catering to "the old lady in Dubuque", and feels itself on the forefront of American letters because they included the work of a person of color about five years ago. Thank you very much.) Remove the country house, the wing chair, the fireplace, and the quaint bookstore, and observe that in 1900, only 2% of all people had gone through college English -- now the figure is 70% and growing.
A thank-you letter on laid rag paper that most people today would treasure as a gift in itself would be treated as one step above junk mail in the 19th century, not because everyone was great at letter-writing, but because it would have been nearly indistinguishable from a hundred other thank-you notes, most copied from forms in a book, and touched up with a few small details. (Other than being hand written, it might as well have been generated by MS Office.) Other social correspondence from the era might as well have been Twittered or texted, in terms of content and artistry, which leads to:
Second, Sturgeon's Law: 90% of anything is crap. This applies just as much to Egyptian papyri and Babylonian tablets as it does to blogs and Facebook pages. For every Law of Hammurabi and Book of the Dead there are tons of other inscriptions ranging from bills of sale to school kids' homework. Western Classical languages, in particular, are notorious for literature ranging from the sacred to the profane (and over again).
For every "Casablanca" or "Citizen Kane", classic Hollywood produced dozens of mediocre "women's pictures", juvenile serials and dumbed-down comedies, since that's what you get when you've got to run everything by a censorship board to assure "quality". If you have no censor (which, back in the 1960's was supposed to liberate everyone into new heights of creativity) you also get some works of genius, plus tons of mind-numbing mediocrity, along with violence, pop religion, shock material, and a lot of porn. Rely too heavily on trained actors and proven talent, and you get "celebrity culture", where the average Joe feels shut out, use "reality" based material, and you find yourself having to script your "real-life stories" in order to get usable material.
The past is full of the whale-like beached carcasses of Sure Things that didn't pan out, though they spared no expense to get great talent, and countless heaps of mouse bones from where they didn't. Any Moral Guardian can randomly dip into any genre or medium and find at least a few frighteners, and failing that, metric tons of completely forgettable sludge. Likewise, anyone who genuinely loves the medium can dip into the same pool of material and find a gem or two. (Punk Rock, from the years 1975 to 1980 is big enough to include Television's exquisite melody "Marquee Moon", Patti Smith's etherial voice, and The Mentors' execrable lyrics to "Golden Shower".)
Thirdly, do your freaking homework! A "dungeon master" doesn't dictate to the players what moves to play in a game. "Cowboy Bebop" is not a character in the anime of the same name. "Gangnam Style" makes perfect sense if you translate it from Korean, give or take a couple of cultural references. "Chat room" doesn't mean "virtual sex", no matter how its billed.
Lastly, Panic Sells. A book/card/gift/coffee shop chain (that makes peanuts and is bleeding money) pulls out of malls, and sets up a thriving business online is a ho-hum item on page 38 in the business section. Bookstores Closing in Droves is a newsweekly cover, and The End of Literacy is a book. "Make your Home Office a Family Place" is a Happy Homemaker piece from the mid-90's, chatting about how "the computer, even more than the television, is a source of entertainment and knowledge the whole family can enjoy" (by using a pretty secretary to house the hardware in the living room). "Cyberporn and Your Kids" and "How He's Digitally Cheating" are cover stories in the woman's magazine of your choice, even though what they're telling you to do is pretty much the same thing. Kids are Spoiled Today is a truism, Hillary Clinton invoking the plight of a mother, bewildered to the point of being frightened, of the technology in her kids' room is an image in a "We Know What's Best for Your Kids" speech. And lastly, it's hard to remember that, in the wake of current events, youth violence has been going down for the last twenty years, even as sales of Grand Theft Auto keep racking up. Yes, I know that One Incident is Too Many (If It's Your Incident), but there's a difference between one incident every few years or so and The End of The World as We Know It, especially when cause and effect aren't too well drawn.
So wake up, and be glad!
Until the next menace comes around...