What could post-literacy be? Options include new technologies, unrealized innate human capabilities, and combinations or mutations of existing capacities. The post-literate equivalent of the alphabet (Alphabet 2.0) could emerge from a number of sources.
The considerations that follow suggest a wide array of possibilities, some more plausible than others. Of course, these are the thoughts of a pre-post-literate. The blinders imposed by literacy may dramatically limit our ability to see much beyond the alphabet.
Here is an overview; we will look at each one in more detail in subsequent chapters.
Augmenting ourselves with technologies is very common (e.g. hammers, eyeglasses, automobiles). Embedding computers as neural prosthetics (e.g. for faster processing, larger memory, wireless access, “thought” control) is widely seen as the next stage of human enhancement. Already fMRIs are being used to “read” brain activity allowing people to control devices, initiate actions, and communicate intent. This technology is especially important to individuals with severe physical disabilities but it promises to expand its application into a mainstream tool for everyone.
Advances in high performance computers are on track to dramatically exceed the power of the human brain. This could result in some sort of “hyper literacy.” Conversely, the emergence of machine intelligence could view literacy as a deterrent and enable a much more effective means to share ideas that transcend conventional reading and writing.
Neural prosthetics and brain-computer interfaces (BCI) do not in themselves represent a replacement for the alphabet or of literacy. However, this new stage in human enhancement will enable new capacities that could be the basis for post-literacy.
Telepathy and Techlepathy
Some of us are telepathic (or at least we can agree that some of us believe we are telepathic). What if telepathy was a capability common to all humans but has remained largely dormant (perhaps for some good evolutionary reason)? Mass telepathy, managed in some way to prevent chaos, would remove the clumsy tool of visible language as a means to understand each other. Telepathy would enable a human connection of unprecedented power and compassion.
What Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading University, calls “techlepathy” is something quite different from telepathy yet with a similar result:
“When the nervous system of a human is linked directly with the internet, the internet effectively becomes an extension of the human nervous system” (Warwick and Rulz, “On Linking Human and Machine Brains”, 2008).
The technology-enabled telepathy interconnecting these minds would likely not use visible language as the means for the exchange of ideas or information. It is what Michael Chorost (World Wide Mind, 2011) refers to as the “electronic corpus callosum.”
Collective Consciousness and the Hive Mind
The power of combined intelligence is the promise of the hive mind. A hive mind is a single consciousness integrated across many individuals or beings. A prominent feature of science fiction (as well as philosophy), for our purposes it can be thought of as a more benign version of the Borg from Star Trek: the Next Generation. What is known to a part is known to the whole. Like telepathy, it provides an intellectual intimacy of unimaginable proportions.
Of course, the price of this capacity is significant: it is the end of the individual, the end of our concept of the self. Being part of the Borg means relinquishing our individual self to the needs of the collective. Will our allegiance to our own individuality (arguably an artifact of literacy) be so strong that we will deny ourselves the superior understanding and knowledge accessible by succumbing to the Borg? The Borg has different ideas. After all, it was them (it?) that famously proclaimed:
“We are the Borg. Lower you shields, and surrender your ship. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours. Resistance is futile.”
Presumably a hive mind could be susceptible to propaganda from a more powerful entity since it might lack the resilience characteristic of individual minds and independent thought. This raises the intriguing specter of “neural hacking” or “mind spam” in a post-literate world. Perhaps the hive mind has been hijacked by another entity and our perceptions are really a simulation created by others. The film The Matrix explores such a world and includes characters who happily choose the simulation over the real world.
The Physiology of Information: Pharmacology and Cosmetic Neurology
“We believe it would be difficult to stop the spread in use of cognitive enhancers given a global market in pharmaceuticals with increasingly easy online access. The drive for self-enhancement of cognition is likely to be as strong if not stronger than in the realms of ‘enhancement’ of beauty and sexual function.” (Sahkian & Morein-Zamir, “Professor’s Little Helper”, 2007)
Humans have used drugs to alter themselves for thousands of years. Smart drugs, nootropics, are emerging that enhance learning capacity (e.g. concentration, receptivity, retention) and others are in development that go much further. The use of Ritalin by college students is well known, as is Adderall, the so-called “cognitive steroid.” Other drugs such as Modafinil or various beta blockers are used to enhance performance in a variety of ways (see Alan Schwartz, “The Risky Rise of the Good-Grades Pill“, 2012). A 2008 survey conducted by the journal Nature indicated that 20% of the respondents had used drugs for non-medical reasons to improve their memory, concentration or focus (Sahakian & Morein-Samir, “Professor’s Little Helper” Nature, 2007). Given that the majority of the readers of Nature are scientists, researchers and academics, the finding suggests cosmetic neurology is going mainstream.
As Tim Caulfield of the University of Alberta notes, “all learning is pharmacological” (McIlroy, “Experts Back Brain Boosters for All“, 2008). Since at some level, information (facts) and understanding (knowledge) are physically encoded in our brains (i.e. within a massive network of neurons, synapses, proteins, neurotransmitters, etc.) then it is possible that drugs or nanomachines could artificially create those same conditions. As Joseph LeDoux indicates in The Synaptic Self (2002), “You are your synapses. They are who you are.”
As we become more aware of how specific information or knowledge sets are encoded, and as we are able to synthesize that into actions that can be taken by pharmaceuticals or by nanotechnologies of some sort, we have the basis for artificially inducing or transmitting information. Synthesized information, and the ability to transmit it pharmacologically or in some other synthetic way, would substantially move us away from the alphabet and books as a means of recorded information towards a knowing and sharing that would be intense and deeply personal. Want to understand French? Pop a pill.
This may be the end of learning as we know it but it is not the end of knowledge and understanding. It is instead a new frontier of expanded human capacity.
Post-humans or Transhumans
Perhaps one of the preconditions for post-literacy is to be post-human. The limitations of carbon based life may require us to seek alternatives in silicon or other materials. Interest in post humans or transhumans has grown substantially in recent years as researchers try to dramatically extend the human lifespan. In The Singularity is Near (2005) Raymond Kurzweil describes “the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology” in such a way that we are human in essence but physically enabled through machines. This future is epitomized in the idea of downloading consciousness into a robot host or presence.
Post-humans are not innately post-literate but they are the platform to create and enable post-literacy. The other candidates for post-literacy, specifically telepathy, neural prosthetics, nano technologies, hive minds and others, combine in this new evolutionary stage to provide the capability and capacity to move well beyond the alphabet and to outpace literacy. Echoing Steve Mann (Cyborg, 1995), the future of humans is to be not human at all.
The concept of post-humans or transhumans still preserves the assumption that post-literacy is about us. What if it isn’t? While literacy is an inherently human characteristic, perhaps post-literacy isn’t. Advances in high performance computing and machine intelligence (not artificial human intelligence but “native” machine intelligence) continue to be astounding. While nothing, yet, matches the capacity and capability of the human brain or the collectivity of human minds, the emergence of massively distributed high performance computing (HPC) devices networked and interoperating suggest the possibility of an Internet-based intelligence that would eclipse human ability.
In this scenario humans are essentially not required. Would we co-exist with the machines? Will we accept being “watched over by machines of loving grace” as the poet Richard Braugtigan observed (The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, 1968)? Iain Banks is more pragmatic. In his novel Surface Detail (2010) he wonders what a machine that thinks in picoseconds will do to entertain itself while it’s waiting for humans to finish their sentences. Will the post-literate machines have any patience for us?
Perhaps this is why in 2007 South Korea began working towards a Bill of Rights (or an Ethics Charter) for robots. Expanding on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Chris Field (University of Technology, Sydney) imagined what that Charter might be like. And tellingly, all these ideas appear ultimately to protect the humans more than robots. I wonder what the machines will think of that.
A Comment from Jeff Penfold: