A Post-Literate Present (John Daniel)

I think the BeyondLiteracy.com website delves far too deeply into esoteric, possible post-literate futures many years down the road. It seems to ignore the post-literate present being created around us.

I see this most clearly in my other classes. In my Information Ethnography class, I am transcribing audio interviews. Before my eyes I can see the colour drain out of a conversation as it is encoded into written form. I have to run the playback software at half speed and even then I have a difficult time keeping up. Speaking and listening is so much more natural than reading and writing. Ideas flow much more freely. Watching people read from a prepared statement during a presentation is always painful.

The material in my Information and Knowledge Practices class is all written. I am struck by how difficult the readings are to comprehend. These are canonical methodological works and they are so difficult to read and understand. They require hours of explanation by the professor and discussion in class. The authors of these works are recognized as the greatest minds in their respective fields. Why can’t they write a paper that is easily understood?

Then there is my Information Policy, Regulation, and Law class. The entire domain of law is based on the premise of writing for obfuscation and against clarity. Politicians and lawyers have elevated the lie to an art form. I keep hoping Michael Geist will explain it to me but he keeps letting me down. Would all this be possible without literacy?

This Beyond Literacy class has helped me to see these trends with a more critical eye and that is its greatest value. Post-literacy is not a topic for the future. It is happening right now. It has has been in progress for over a hundred years. During the early part of our recorded history, symbols and then writing were the only ways to send a stable message without a human messenger. The telegraph then started to change the concept of literacy by introducing a new, technological medium of communication that moulded the language to the technology. With radio, we abandoned the text. The telephone brought the audio medium of radio to everyone. Video and television then pushed text further into the background. The internet gave reading and writing a mild bump because it enabled anyone to create and send their own message. Now that bandwidth and technology are advancing, audio and video are surging forward. Podcasts were big for a while. Now YouTube allows people to create video messages. Some people are even doing video chat. With each new development, reading and writing become less important. I don’t know if written symbology will ever go away but I’m pretty sure that the writing of today will one day be just an unintelligible as rock carvings are now.

I just finished my transcriptions. I look forward to the day when I won’t have to read any more methodology papers. Maybe if writing becomes obsolete, lawyers will be too. One day, everything will be in the format of a TED talk. Given the lack of independent thought I see on the internet these days, I think the hive-mind is already here. Post-literacy is an idea that has been around for some time and is only now being noticed. Like the stars of the hive-mind zombie meme, literacy may already be the living dead.


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