Literacy Under Siege

Literacy has been under siege for some time. The supposed agents of this threat have changed over the years but the perception remains constant. Television, movies, video games, mobile phones, and the Internet have all been identified as the culprits that rot the brain, desensitize, delude, and generally ruin the minds of the young (and perhaps everyone else too). At the core of much of this concern is the perceived decline of literacy.

One of the most passionate and eloquent commentators on this decline and its impact is Chris Hedges. In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), he notes,

“The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present.”

This “eternal present” is comprised of “comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence.” It is a world devoid of substance, dislocated from history, reflection, and nuance.

The media and popular press point clearly to new technologies as the cause of this decline but also, ironically, as the source of the “new literacy.” Texting, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and countless other technologies and media are widely seen as undermining or displacing literacy. Not so. They are certainly changing our relationship with literacy and altering what it means to be literate in a ubiquitous multimedia world. But all these things are intimately linked to literacy.

A Comment from Patrick Molicard-Chartier:
Boys and Literacy

David Crystal, one of the world’s leading linguists, debunks the erosion of language by new technologies in a talk and interview hosted by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Calling texting “extraordinarily creative”, he notes that “the earlier you get your mobile phone, the better your literacy scores.”

David CrystalSo it turns out that most new technologies and media are not threatening literacy but in fact enhancing it. As a result these are not the tools and capacities that will displace literacy; they are much more likely to be sources for the defense of literacy.

While they may be easy targets for the luddites, none of these technologies has exhibited a capacity sufficiently powerful to displace literacy or even create a substantive new literacy. In fact, most are based on a foundation of conventional literacy. The Internet is the largest, most comprehensive information resource ever assembled. It represents the triumph of literacy not its demise.

These technologies are not candidates for post-literacy. A replacement for literacy will require a greater level of capability and capacity than that of these relatively primitive technologies.

One of the main reasons that literacy is doomed (or is a likely candidate for replacement) is that it is very hard to master. Learning to read and write is difficult, requiring considerable time and attention. Years of schooling and practice are involved. Many of us remain functionally illiterate, while most of us struggle to build and refine our skills over a lifetime. Only a small number of us, the great writers for example, become experts.

Visible language is also notoriously ineffective. While the rich tapestry of written language does add colour, beauty and cultural depth to the human experience, it also erects barriers among people that inhibit understanding. What I struggle to write is often different in meaning and nuance from what you struggle to read. The great conversation across time is difficult, imprecise, and highly prone to error and misinterpretation. Literacy is hard won, elitist, and ultimately inadequate for the challenges ahead.

Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy describes the impact that literacy has on us. Literacy is “aggressive.” It takes over, displaces, and eliminates. Using terms and metaphors consistent with diseases, Ong makes the case that while literacy is extraordinarily beneficial, it is also disruptive and limiting.

Some think the impact of literacy is even more profound, and disturbing.

In his expansive survey of civilization Leonard Shlain documents “literacy’s hidden cost” (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, 1998). The impact of literacy was no less than the rise of patriarchy and the decline of feminine values and equalitarianism: “alphabetic print had exploded Western culture into millions of hard-edged shards of individualistic shrapnel.” By examining a number of societies and their evolution, he concludes,

“when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric one, which manifests as a decline in the status of image, women’s rights, and goddess worship.”

Levi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques, 1961) goes even further in assessing the implications of literacy by declaring that “the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.”

Shlain welcomes the rise of visual, image-based culture typified by YouTube, Flickr, and Pinterest as a means to re-balance and refocus civilization.


12 Responses to “Literacy Under Siege”

  1. John Miedema October 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Literacy is tough to learn and master. It takes years, and might be regarded as a divider between the literate and the illiterate. Extending from my comments in previous chapters, it’s a good thing that a primary function of literacy is to teach awareness of others, joining disparate groups of people who might never have understood each other prior to literacy.

    I agree that the internet is an expression of literacy. But it is also something qualitatively different. It has the immediacy of orality. It is creating a shift in the way we read and think. Remember when people used to print emails to read them, then filed them in their filing cabinet? Seems funny now. Weinberger (Too Big to Know) says that knowledge is no longer book-shaped but networked shaped. I know you have something much bigger in mind for your idea of post-literacy, but the internet is at least a stage of post-literacy, quite different that the world of print.

    You have something more dramatic in mind for post-literacy, I know. To me the best real-world candidate for post-literacy is the internet. The rest is just fantasy, imaginative and seductive, but impossible to evaluate. I look forward to your later chapter on the possible candidates for post-literacy. I hope you will persuade me otherwise.

    • Farah October 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      I agree with your point that the Internet is a really good example of post-literacy. While not fully post-literate, the Internet definitely demonstrates a way of communicating and connecting with others that is very different from visual literacy. While communication over the Internet is still largely text-based, much of it is also meaning-making and understanding independent of text (from emoticons, gifs and instagram to musical compositions on soundcloud). One thing I struggled with in thinking about post-literate avenues of communication is the fact that I can’t imagine how there could be post-literacy without posthumans, but my classmate Peter pointed out that in some ways, the Internet already makes us posthuman. Even though we’re not physically plugged in or directly attached to the Internet, our interactions on it and within it do make us cybernetic individuals (posthuman) in a way (as in Amber Case’s TedTalk

      • John Miedema October 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

        Be sure to see Andy Clark’s book, Natural Born Cyborgs. I reviewed it here: Clark talks about extended mind, the idea that thought and knowledge do not just occur in the brain. I will return to this idea to challenge Mike’s notion that we can acquire knowledge through a pill or some other technology.

        • Michael Ridley October 28, 2012 at 10:27 am #

          Michael Chorost builds on Clark’s ideas in World Wide Mind by suggesting that the Internet is a mechanism (a component ) to enable a post-literate capacity but it is not the thing itself.

          The intimate linkage of minds, networks and machines than Chorost imagines combine to create a post-literate ecology. Ideas and knowledge move through this environment in new and different ways. Chorost likens this to something like dance; an intermingling of the physical and the conceptual.

          I’m fond of dance as a metaphor for post-literacy. Not entirely successful but it suggests a different way that a post-literate capacity will be experienced (felt).

    • Patrick Molicard-Chartier November 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      Very interesting thoughts John.

      The notion that post-literacy is something of the future is dispelled by the use of the internet today. I agree that the internet is the leading candidate for the post-literate future. You wrote “literacy is tough to learn and master” and I couldn’t agree with you more. As a student in Mike Ridley’s class, I have been a part of many discussions about what post-literacy will look like but my mind keeps bringing me back to the internet and the impact it is already creating in developing a generation of post-literate children.

      Prior to my enrolling in this graduate program, I was a public elementary school teacher. I saw first hand how literacy was creating a divide within the classroom (especially among boys) however, we were in the computer labs the playing field immediately became more level in terms of engagement and finding information. I think we are seeing the beginnings of the post-literate world and it’s starting with the internet.

  2. Farah October 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    I will definitely have to read the books suggested! Thank you for the links!

    New Ray Kurzweil interview – he talks about machine intelligence and cyborgs – computers in our brain to be “gateways to The Cloud” the way our cell phones and computers garner knowledge from The Cloud (Internet?), that eventually we may have neocortex in The Cloud that we can backup via @singularityhub

    • Laurie October 31, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

      On The Alphabet Versus the Goddess site, Leonard Shlain suggests that iconic information began to supersede text information in the mid-20th Century, and that this shift has opened up new and radical possibilities for perceiving, and reconfiguring the world. After a (very) brief introduction to Shlain’s ideas, it was startling to hear Ray Kurzweil in the interview clip state so emphatically, “the world is inherently hierarchical.” I imagine that Shlain would call that a great example of left-brain thinking!

      Thanks for the links and references, Farah and Michael – I’m inspired to investigate the work of both these thinkers in greater depth now!

  3. maryakem November 10, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    So is it in fact that .. difficulty is dying out? The success of the predictable, renamed the intuitive, is front and centre.

    Would it be bad for difficulty to die out? May I suggest a new poll!

  4. Caitlin M November 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Mary, I think that your question about whether it would be bad for difficulty to die out is a really interesting one!

    Ridley points out that MASTERING literacy requires that we refine our skills over a lifetime and that few of us will ever become experts such as great writers. I agree with this statement. I also think that there is value in the fact that it’s hard to master. Some of us might CHOOSE to try to MASTER literacy, but most of us never need to. Why is it a bad thing to engage with activities and endeavors which require focused or prolonged attention? Crafting the perfect book is like creating a work of art. Why would we want to eliminate this act of (sublime?) creation? It is something to aspire to, and be inspired by and I think that this is because of the effort that it requires.

    Also, if attention, effort and focus are like muscles, then the fact that mastering writing requires these abilities suggests that it exercises and hones them.

    All this is not to say that I think literacy should remain the only/central means of communication. I believe that other mediums and forms of expression are also extremely important – and incidentally also usually difficult to master.

  5. Mandi A December 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    Leonard Shlain in his book,“The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (1999) submits that: “All humans are born with the innate capability to learn the grammar of the first language they hear. And every human is born with an innate ability to read the body language, gestures, and facial expressions of others. Evolution [however], did not prepare humans in the same way for the immense innovation called literacy. The invention of writing approximately 5,000 years ago, followed by the simple innovation called the alphabet 3,500 years ago, was on a par with fire, the wheel, and agriculture.”

    What does this mean?

    Well the author explains. “The alphabets, the most abstract, linear, sequential, reductionist forms of writing, mimic the features of the left hemisphere. Unlike the spoken word, which requires the use of both verbal and nonverbal cues to interpret, literacy depends primarily on the use of the left hemisphere.”

    What else does this mean?

    The invention of the alphabet had a huge impact on women’s rights. Since women primarily function in the right hemisphere of the brain and the alphabet provided a method for transferring information that reinforced the left hemisphere, it subsequently lessened the importance of the right hemisphere. “In the culture at large [during that historic period], this resulted in the dominance of masculine thinking, which, over time, led to the downfall of goddesses, property passing not through the mother’s line but instead through the father’s line, and the loss of other important rights for women” (Shlain).

  6. Cliffton Chandler September 25, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    “The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off form the past They live in an eternal present.”

    Yo guys,

    I’m amused that the typo in the opening quote about illiterate lifestyles–(cut off “form” the past–see EXHIBIT A)–has persisted unremarked and unrepaired in such distinguished company.
    Also–tsk, tsk, guys–but sentences need periods too. Helps them stave off meglomania. So that grammar-flaunting capital “T”–(the past They live in)–so soon after a spelling error? Let’s not be quite so hasty, neh?

    Holla back,


    • Michael Ridley September 25, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

      Points taken. A bit sloppy on my part. Thanks for the corrections.


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