Characteristics of Post-Literacy

“If the ideal of communication is a meeting of souls,
then writing is a sad shadow of the ideal.”

James Gleick, The Information (2011)

If we can agree that post-literacy is a positive development and not a decline into some sort of anti-intellectual wasteland, then we need to consider what would it be like. What are the characteristics of a post-literate world?

Replacing or displacing reading and writing will not be easy. This difficulty will not come from resistance of people to letting go but rather in finding a capacity or capability which is sufficiently powerful to perform better than literacy. Of the many characteristics a post-literate capability must have, the principle one is that it must be advantageous. Anything less than an advantage over literacy will result in its failure. Any capacity that does not bring with it new opportunities and new options while still preserving some, but not all, of literacy’s benefits will not endure.

What is it about literacy that we value? While we believe that post-literacy will bring opportunities beyond those provided by reading and writing, there are characteristics of literacy that have made it tremendously successful and that must likely survive in a post-literate world.

Visible language has excelled in two almost contradictory characteristics: the ability to achieve clarity and precision, and the capacity to be expressive, evocative, and nuanced. This combination of the factual and the metaphorical is a great source of literacy’s power and influence. It can tell you something or it can merely suggest something. It can bring something into focus in such a way as to further your knowledge or it can deliberately introduce imprecision or confusion in order to stimulate a new awareness or dispel an old idea. Writing has a plasticity allowing it to mold itself for diverse purposes.

Reading is often described as an all encompassing, trance-like experience. Being “taken away” to another world or time is part of the pleasure and advantage of literacy. As neurologist Jeff Zacks has observed “reading itself is a powerful kind of virtual reality” (“Reading Create ‘Simulations’ in Minds”, 2009) When you read your brain mingles what you are reading with all your past experiences, memories, and tactile responses. Reading is a complex integration of the text, your own history, and the simulations your brain creates for you. The immersive nature of reading is profound and important. In part this is why reading is so addictive. Post-literacy must enable this; it must provide a complex and sophisticated virtual world that is both presented to us (by the author or creator) and that mingles with our own inner world (our memories and imagination).

With immersion also comes the ability to reflect. Reading is a measured experience. The reader can stop, re-read, jump ahead, and even make notes (reading the marginalia of others is an interesting pursuit in itself. For more on this see H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, 2001). Unlike many media, video for example, the reader is in charge of their own experience. We process reading differently than we process images or sound. The result is a more contemplative experience. While transported, we are also in control. We are not simply experiencing the text we are actively reflecting on it and contributing to it through our imagination and critical assessment. In part this is because the pace of reading is, by comparison with other media, slow. This opportunity for reflection, contemplation, and extension makes reading a more compelling, integrative experience.

An obvious benefit of writing over orality is the ability of ideas (through texts) to persist over time and space. Literacy creates the possibility of an historical perspective; it presents time as linear, and events as sequential and fixed (true). Libraries are possible because of the persistence of texts. Study, comparison, dialogue, and debate are all possible across the ages because the texts allow us to commune with the great minds of the past or simply anyone who was able to record their thoughts. Spoken words are uttered and then dissolve into the air; the written word can endure for future use and reflection. Persistence is a preeminent benefit.

Writing is not just a recording of facts. Reading is not just decoding symbols. Reading and writing are a means to understand and a way to provide understanding. Texts are a forum where the author can persuade, influence, cajole, and reprimand. It is a place where the reader seeks help, insight, and support. Writing provides a conversation and an informed discourse where there is opportunity for interchange and growth. While reading is a personal act, reading creates communities of like minds. Reading is an isolated activity but it is part of a communal experience of the text. We can understand each other and share ideas with each other because we have read the same books. The books we read allow us to build individual identities at the same time the collective experience builds a community of common ideas and values. In this sense reading and writing construct a key part of the social fabric upon which we rely to bring meaning to our communities and our individual lives.

Patrick Tucker in “The Dawn of the Postliterate Age” (2009) reinforces the primary characteristic of post-literacy, that it be advantageous:

“If written language is merely a technology for transferring information, then it can and should be replaced by a newer technology that performs the same function more fully and effectively. But it’s up to us, as the consumers and producers of technology, to insist that the would-be replacement demonstrate authentic superiority.”

His faith in “consumers and producers” to act in the best interests of each other may be misplaced. Other motives may well influence the emergence of a post-literate capacity. And the superiority of whatever that capacity is may not be apparent in the early stages of its evolution (as was the case with early writing). However, Tucker concludes with a strident challenge that is intellectually and emotionally jarring. We must, he says, demand “proof that illiteracy … will improve people’s lives.”

These characteristics and these concerns are illustrative of why reading and writing will not be easily displaced. Literacy is deeply beneficial and highly addictive. It has become a cornerstone of our societies and our civilizations. And yet it has limitations which seriously undermine its ability to continue to be a dominate form of human communication. Literacy has fatal flaws and other developments promise to open up a new possibilities for human ideas and knowledge. That is the focus of the next few chapters of this project.


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