Reading and writing are doomed.

Literacy as we know it is over.

Welcome to the post-literate future.

Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment about the demise of literacy and the rise of other capabilities, capacities or tools that will effectively and advantageously displace reading and writing. While the prospect of the end of literacy is disturbing for many, it will not be a decline into some new Dark Age but rather the beginning of an era of advanced human capability and connection.

The post-literate world is to be welcomed not feared. Of course, getting there could be a bit disruptive.

Writing about the end of literacy is certainly ironic and probably slightly foolish. However, literacy is doomed and this is the best way available to chart its decline and replacement.

Literacy or “visible language” is a profound capability. The ability to read and write is a transformative skill that fundamentally changes the way we think, act, and engage with each other. The power of reading and writing is undeniable. And yet there are challenges to the human condition for which literacy seemingly fails. Has literacy run its course? Has our allegiance to its capabilities blinded us to its failings?

This project explores something which seems inevitable but for which we have grave misgivings. The alphabet is simply a tool, and a relatively recent one in terms of human evolution. Humans excel in making tools. It only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.

And so this book will explore that inevitability: that literacy will be displaced or replaced by a capacity, capability or tool more powerful, valuable and useful. The premise is that literacy is doomed.

Beyond Literacy is also an experiment in participation. The issues and ideas presented here are intended as the starting points for a larger and wider discussion. I hope these chapters will encourage you to engage further by commenting on specific posts, adding your own posts, or by publishing commentary on your own sites and linking back to Beyond Literacy. The objective is to nurture a distributed dialogue across many venues and in many formats.

Literacy is a capability we privilege above all others. It is a universal good. It is widely viewed as a prerequisite for success and personal development. By contrast, illiteracy is understood to be an impairment. While I will argue that literacy is doomed, and while I will try to make the case that what replaces literacy will be more powerful, like you, I harbour strong allegiances to literacy. I have been transported by poetry; I have been enriched by lucid and complex arguments; I have been entertained, touched, moved, and enraged by the writings of great people; I have shared my thoughts with friends and recorded ideas for my great grandchildren. I have reveled in reading and writing.

Given our experiences, it is difficult to escape the perspectives imposed on us by literacy. As Walter Ong notes, literacy is a “pre-emptive and imperialistic activity” since it displaces other ways of conceptualizing (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982). While we are children of literacy, we are also prisoners of literacy. Marshall McLuhan has observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”(Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). However, despite this, it is possible to conceive of a technology or a capacity that would replace literacy. “Post-literacy” is defined here as the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.

LinkLink: A Note on Terminology and Notation Systems

Obviously thoughts about post-literacy are purely speculative. This project is a thought experiment not an objective consideration of the facts. One can easily dismiss these speculations as mere science fiction; interesting but insubstantial and highly unlikely. Perhaps. The history of human communication suggests that literacy itself was unlikely. It is a fairly recent development and only in the past few hundred years has it become widespread (i.e. mass literacy). This is in stark contrast to spoken language which is innate and universal in humans.

A Comment from Pamela Murray:
Literacy Unlikely? Why (or Why Isn’t) This So?

As a librarian, proposing that literacy is doomed is a provocative and challenging assertion particularly given that libraries and librarianship are fundamentally grounded in the acts of reading and writing. However, visible language is simply a technology, albeit a tremendously powerful and successful one, and technologies come and go as their value waxes or wanes.

Why is this idea so compelling? The process of thinking about it, talking about it, and studying it with the students in the courses I have taught has reinforced the profound value of literacy. Contemplating the end of literacy has magnified its importance. It is a reaffirmation of the fundamental power of literacy even as we contemplate its demise.

Do I really believe literacy is doomed? Yes.

Do I think this is a cause for concern? Yes. And No.

Will I feel a sense of loss when it happens? Perhaps.

I, like you, am a child of literacy. I have experienced the enormous pleasure and personal advantage of being literate. But I have also seen the complexities of the world challenge our ability to respond. In The Ingenuity Gap (2000) Thomas Homer-Dixon speculates on whether our world has become too complex and fast-paced. How will we deal with the emerging problems? Where will the new ideas come from? From this perspective, is it possible that our literate selves are one of the barriers to new thinking and to critically important new ideas?

People are quick to defend literacy against any threat. It is a universal good. It is the key to success and personal growth. While all these things are true, our passion for our literate condition clouds our view of alternatives and new possibilities. Just as we can experience the magic of literacy, so can we imagine the possibility of another tool that would bring with it even greater transformation and personal power.

Of course, post-literacy is not simply a new gadget or an innovative piece of technology. Neither computers nor the Internet are examples of post-literacy. Displacing literacy is going to require a capability or capacity far more profound than these. What that entails and how that will happen are central to this project and the commentaries of those who choose to engage in the discussion.

 LinkLink: What is Post-Literacy? Part 1

LinkLink: What is Post-Literacy? Part 2

   A Comment from John Daniel:
A Post-Literate Present


28 Responses to “Introduction”

  1. Laura October 23, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    “Reading and writing are doomed” hmmm… a provocative idea. Is it possible that instead there will be other mechanisms “in addition to” the alphabet? I’m willing to consider your possible reality, while still hanging on tight to my beloved ABCs.

    • kanta Kapoor December 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      Some tools more powerful,which would complement, but not replace our beloved alphabets.

  2. Anne-Marie October 23, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Beautifully written Michael. I am intrigued and excited to read more and participate in this conversation (in writing no less). I embrace this new world and will grieve the old one. It will be interesting what new competencies will emerge and how education will respond, and at what pace.
    Anne-Marie (nurse and college educator)

  3. Stewart C Baker October 23, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    An intriguing idea, but I’m not entirely sold on the idea that a “post-literate” world will have discarded literacy or moved beyond it so much as that it will develop additional, supplemental -acies.

    When I say supplemental, incidentally, I’m thinking of Derrida, so that the “supplement” neither replaces, displaces, nor relies entirely on the supposedly “original” idea.

    In other words, I suspect literacy has never been as strongly defining as we like to think. The rise of new (visual? aural?) communication technologies simply suggests a change in the prevalence of the literal (scribal?) technology–and not its “downfall” or anything else so dramatic.

    Still–kudos to you for raising the idea! Provocative challenges are a great way to foster discussion and, even more importantly, thinking.

    • MikeRidley October 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

      I both agree and disagree. Our literate self is deeply embedded. We strongly resist challenges to its authority (hence we allow things to be supplemental rather than to replace). I wonder if we will be open to accepting a truly post-literate condition. Our literates selves may not allow it.

      Thanks for the comment; delighted to have you as a reader and commentator.

  4. Wendy October 23, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    You’ve certainly gotten this project off to a great start. I’d love to have someone with more science than I have offer some comments on the way the human brain processes text vs other forms of information acquisition. If humanity gives up on alphabets, the alternative is going to have to be something that allows us to retain large amounts of information, and which can transmit complex and subtle thought processes.

    • Jeff Penfold October 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Thank you for the interest in our project. As one of the students in the class/project I have also found myself grappling with what a post-literate alphabet (?) might be. However, I find myself wondering if I can’t move past the idea I need to retain large amounts of information. Perhaps the post literate future we will be relying on technology to retain and process the information and we will be dealing only with the output. I’m not sure I approve of that future but as machine intelligence becomes more complex the requirement for humans to process and retain large amounts of information may in fact decline. In this scenario (for me it seems dystopian) the alphabet may be unnecessary.

      • Wendy November 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

        In a post-literate world, I’m assuming we’ll have to retain larger amounts of information in our brains, since there will be nowhere to record it. No maps, no signs, no tasklists in Outlook. You’re putting a lot of pressure on memory.

        • Wendy November 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

          Perhaps instead of post-literate world, we’re talking about a post-literary world?

        • Patrick Molicard-Chartier November 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

          Hi Wendy,

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t have a science background but I do have an education and child development background in which we touch upon memory.

          Memory is a very complex thing and there are many questions that are still unanswered as to how it works. I think our capacity for memory has to potential to expand. The way in which we retrieve information could be even more efficient if we are able to understand how memory works.

          I don’t think that we’ll only have to rely on our memory. Just because the alphabet and traditional literacy (reading and writing) will change in a post-literate world doesn’t mean we won’t have other ways of codifying information, it will just be different than the traditional tool of the alphabet.

  5. Mandi October 23, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” When I think of how the alphabet (a basic
    tool consisting of 26 symbols) has shaped ‘the way we think, act, and engage
    with each other’, it becomes very plausible that today’s more advanced tools
    could accomplish the goals of literacy without all the effort it currently demands.

    Take countries where literacy rates are below 50% for example
    and you’d probably find many who would welcome the idea of another possibility;
    a way of engaging without having to meet the basic standard required for global
    participation. These examples would indicate
    that ‘instead’ may be more appropriate than ‘beyond’. Cultural advancement and enlightenment
    without literacy! As suggested by Homer-Dixon, maybe our current tool set has
    been more of a hindrance that a help when it comes to new ways of thinking and
    to critically important new ideas.

  6. Alana McGrattan October 23, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    How will we view “truth” and fact checking in such a world? Already I see students using databases that are available in audio format and many languages.
    Voice recognition is still developing. When I asked SIRI for a local post office while driving in Santa Fe NM, I found myself on google maps in Antartica. A lesson in global consiousness?
    At the root it is still about storytelling and games

  7. Tom Russell October 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    First thoughts: an interesting premise, I look forward to exploring this with you. Words are but one of many means of conveying thoughts/concepts not the only one. Would post-literacy bring about a shift back to allegorical, rather than literal, thinking?

  8. bdleaf October 24, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    At first, I read “Literacy is a capability we privilege above all others” as “Literacy is a privilege.” I caught myself before moving on, and then, almost ironically, the next paragraph of text discusses literacy as an imposition.

    That was my initial reaction at least. I look forward to exploring and conversing as this thought experiment progresses.

  9. Michael Ridley October 26, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Commenting is back. Very sorry about the frustrations caused by the problems we were experiencing. I hope everyone is eager to re-engage.


  10. Michael Ridley October 26, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Farah Chung, a student in the Beyond Literacy course, has responded to some of the discussion about the project:
    A Student Responds …

    • walt crawford October 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

      Since Farah Chung quite appropriately brought her comments back here, and after semi-apologizing for my rudeness, I found that I couldn’t resist doing an editorial experiment (like a thought experiment but with words instead of thoughts), rewriting the Introduction in a nonconfrontational manner. The results are here:

      If confronted with that version, I would have at least read the rest of the chapters with a more open mind. Which isn’t to say that my approach is right and yours is wrong, necessarily.

  11. John Miedema October 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    “Literacy is doomed.” This is your most extreme and provocative assertion. “Doomed” is too much, in the same way that orality was not doomed by the introduction of literacy. Much of human communication is still oral, and our brains still convert written symbols back to their original spoken equivalents. I know you are familiar with Ong and all the relevant neuroscience (e.g., Dehaene), so why do you insist that literacy is doomed? You define post-literacy as the state when reading and writing are no longer _dominant_. Okay, that’s a more moderate position than “doomed”. More comments to come later on.

    Congrats on releasing this experiment. One suggestion — the ideas are abstract and deserve a slow read, so I felt a need to print out the main content for a proper read. It would be nice if you made a PDF available as an option. Nimbler minds may not require this.

    • Michael Ridley October 28, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      Always pleased to have your clear and insightful observations John. Thanks. OK, “doomed” maybe over the top but I wanted to capture the attention of the reader. Perhaps my PR self got the better of me.

      As Mandi said in an earlier comment, it could be “instead of” rather than “beyond.”

      However, one thing I think we need to explore is the possibility that this underlying tool, the alphabet, will become so less effective compared to the alternative(s) that it will become a fetish. Doomed at least as a mainstream tool.

      One other thing, I’m not convinced that language is doomed, just written language. Ong’s secondary orality (something McLuhan picked up on) is an intriguing option.

      • John October 30, 2012 at 10:26 am #

        I take it back about the need for a PDF or printout. The subsequent chapters are short enough to read online.

        • Geoffrey Allen November 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

          One of the things foremost in my mind through this discussion, is the format in which the (any) materials are made available. I’m not convinced that literacy is facing any immediate threat, or that it will ever go away entirely, but I do believe that there is great room for improvement over literacy as we know it. Who can say what that will look like? None of us today, but we can help facilitate the development of new modes of communication beyond literacy.

          One of the most important things we can do to help, I believe, is in making data – such as the information contained on this website – openly available to the world. Perhaps a PDF version would help some of us who grew up with a strong literacy-based background (myself included), but let’s, please, get over the idea of locking data down in a format designed to preserve a visual design. PDF lets us create picture perfect images that mimic the printed page (with some added benefits to be sure), but why not let the text be free instead? Let the users EASILY do what they like with the ideas. Encourage reuse and mashups. That’s the way to really start getting us moving beyond literacy.

          I like the idea of webbooks, available in html, xml, pdf, epub, . . . Satisfy the literate world of today, while providing open data to create the literacy of tomorrow, whatever that may be.

  12. Jessica November 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    I have to agree with Geoffrey that while there is not an imminent threat to visual literacy, there is room for improvement within literacy as we know it. As a student in this course one aspect of Beyond Literacy that has become very interesting to me is the “Great Divide” between the literate and non-literate. I should mention that my undergraduate degree is in English Literature, and that I value my literate abilities more than almost anything. I LOVE reading, writing, and books, and actually cannot imagine my life without them. However, I also understand that reading and writing are difficult to learn, and to master, and I often wonder about those people who are left behind in literacy.

    I have many friends and acquaintances who are extremely intelligent, but find reading and writing difficult – for that reason many of them decided against post-secondary education, and some of them did not finish highschool. These people are smart, interesting, and socially engaged, but I would argue are undervalued by society because they are not as literate as they “should be”. I think that our current obsession with literacy as the only “real” indicator of intelligence is holding us back. My vision of a post-literate future is blurry, but hopefully it will value other skills and means of communication in addition to literacy, so that our culture can be enriched by everyone and not just the literate.

  13. Kanta Kapoor November 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    Power of Literacy

    The Greek philosopher Aristippus once said, “Native ability without education is like a tree without fruit.” Literacy is not just about reading and writing. It empowers a person by embedding them with decision making and problem solving skills A literate person can lead a better life and in turn can give better life to their children. The very difference between more developed nations and less developed nations lies in literacy. The more literate the populations are, the more powerful the nation is. In my opinion, the same principle would hold true for post-literacy also. A post literate would be more powerful than the one, who lags behind in evolving from literate to post-literate. In order to survive in the post-literate society, one has to keep pace with this evolution process.

  14. david thurman November 19, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    The new Testament is a post literate text in a literate world. I treat the aleph bet as the first modern computer software, the paper and ink hardware, and the brain functioning as the observer and the monitor. The Jewish community, is the first modern computer company so to speak.

    These programmers wrote everything down and then followed their laptop computer the “Torah” or the “IPAD of GOD”in literal recipe fashion. That of course came into direct conflict with fertility. There is an woman, in that community that called bullshit on the entire community as to the validity of the “IPAD OF GOD” as being fundamental because she was pregnant. Her culture’s “IPAD OF GOD” said her pregnancy was evil the child in her was evil and she was evil and must be stoned to death.

    That young Jewish woman calling Bullshit on literacy confusion, went on to to great Fame, and that small child, that her culture said was EVIL, according to there IPAD OF GOD, went onto some fame himself. A rather profound story to say the least. I will leave the names out and let you figure out who is the woman, and who is the child.

    Post literacy? It’s fundamental and is a very very old issue not new!!!!!

  15. Mira November 29, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    If we are talking about basic literacy, like the stuff they teach us in school, perhaps there won’t be much drama in dropping all that spelling, syllabling, reading and writing off – it seems for many this is not much more than an initiation into facebook-ing, tweeter-ing, text-messaging and reading labels and bills, and writing shopping lists; the rest of the needed by your soul is done for you by Google, Wikipedia and Word. Alternatives? Name it. Could be the “Neuromancer”’s basic idea of planting a chip into your brain which plugs you into the global network (Internet), or at first could be something more moderate, like the headset that reads your mind which is already a reality. . . . So it is just a matter of time that the visuality of the black & white letters will be substituted (with a little healthy brain re-wiring perhaps) by a raw thought’s power. I even wonder how it’s possible that in the very modern, top notch school my daughter is attending they still teach the alphabet.
    My concern is for the escapists who use reading to relax and get away from the mundane, as a therapy, mind-gardening, self-composing. The routine of sitting/laying down with a good, stimulating read is hard to beat, even though nowadays even this simple pleasure is becoming a luxury, time-wise. What kind of substitute they will be offered? A powerful recreation that both enriches the self and deepens the knowledge of it? Time travelling of sorts? Possible. And there also are the people who use writing as a tool for shaping and developing ideas. There is something very comforting of laying all your ideas out in black and white and let your eyes do the editing. The people with visual type of memory will be particularly deprived if/when writing is gone.
    Perhaps it is a question of generation change – we will never be able to accept and embrace radical change of this caliber. But hey – there are the generations to come. And perhaps reading and writing need not become “extinct” specie, we could still use them as therapy, recreation, hypnosis, psychoanalysis, serious study work etc.
    However, fascinating topic.

  16. Insert Nothing Here February 3, 2014 at 3:30 am #

    Why aren’t all the comments written in emoticons?

  17. Susan Schmit February 8, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    This is kinda sad, since i really like to read. Future kids somehow wont see the need of literature. It delivers informations and thoughts people need to know. Also it changes a bit the behaviour of the people. For example Fred Josy, that book was awesome! Now all they care are best gaming laptops 2016


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