Influential Prose

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The ASL Renaissance

Employment Matters column,

About 10,000 years ago, there was a radical change in the way people lived. Before then, we had to chase down our food or gather local wild plants wherever we happened to be. When animals migrated, people followed – they stayed close to the food.

But eventually we learned to grow our own food, and do it on a scale large enough to support settled communities. People began to gather in villages, towns and cities instead of moving around constantly. This meant more people living together and communicating with each other.

The earliest forms of writing appeared in the Middle East, and focused mostly on food – counting it, trading it, keeping track of who owned it. For centuries, all writing was done by hand, and of course we still teach children how to write in our schools today. Reading and writing was once a skill reserved for kings, church leaders and the rich. Today, any schoolchild can learn how to do it.

The Chinese were the first to develop ways of printing. 500 years ago a German man created a machine for printing books. It was a crude machine by today’s standards, but it was a major revolution at the time – it was technology that would truly change the world.

The ability to print books and distribute them far and wide led to an explosion of new ideas and the exchange of ideas. This explosion was called the Renaissance in Europe, and the effects of that explosion are still felt today. It did a lot to promote an idea we’re still exploring – we call it democracy.

We are, right now, in the middle of another explosion. It seems to be happening in slow motion to us, but from a historical perspective, the last 10 years have done what took centuries before.

When the technology of printed books became available it was still several hundred years before enough people could read and write to support a thriving market for books.

When the Internet opened to the general public, most users were already literate, and thus ready to instantly take advantage of the Net’s power. Today we take it for granted that a blog published on the other side of the world just minutes ago is available to us immediately. We forget what an amazing achievement that is.

There is still another, smaller explosion, but one closer to our personal experience – the growth of ASL’s “written” form, recorded and live ASL. It’s been available in video for years through videocameras and televisions, but the quality has gone up as cost has come downand the Net has made sharing video easier than printing. We are now floating in an ocean of ASL on video, and this new ocean is growing wider and deeper by the day.

For the Deaf community, this change is every bit as powerful as the development of printed books was for medieval Europe. The success of ASL discussion forums and the vigorous debates we see there echo the vibrant discussions sparked by expanding access to books hundreds of years ago.

We are lucky to be alive at this time, witness to the birth of videophones and ASL online. It is changing our present, it is changing our future, and it is changing us.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 1:00 am

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