Beyond Literacy began publishing about four weeks ago and the reactions have been encouraging. Some of the responses have been quite direct.
I have been taken to task, quite rightly in many cases, for being too strident, serious, boring, shallow, text-centric, and poorly read. Most pointedly one person referred to the initial chapters as “bovine excrement.” Ouch. Now there’s a clear opinion.
Dialogue and discussion is what we wanted and that is what we got. Thanks to all who have been interested enough to participate.
One of the goals of this project is to have people reflect more on their literate selves; to understand how alphabetic literacy (reading and writing) so profoundly shapes our lives and the way we think. Not just in the obvious (and important) ways reading and writing allow us to experience new things, ideas, and perspectives, but also how literacy circumscribes our world view and prevents us from seeing things (or understanding ideas) from other perspectives. Literacy is a window; literacy is also a prison.
All this flows from a single observation: the alphabet is simply a tool.
Let me try to comment on a number of observations made about Beyond Literacy so far.
Why So Much Text?
If I’m arguing for the demise of literacy, why such a heavy emphasis on text to explain this? Aside from the irony of this, which I do like very much (the WordPress theme was deliberately selected to imitate a book), there is a more pragmatic reason.
I do not actually think any of the other media or literacies (e.g. audio, image, video) are sufficiently powerful to challenge or displace visible language. We will have audio and video components to the project. I hope that others will create images to engage with the ideas. And I would be delighted if someone danced a response.
However, none of these, together or separately, will displace literacy.
So, the grand irony is that the best way for me to communicate the end of literacy is by writing about it. That doesn’t undermine my argument, it just acknowledges that the capability, capacity or tool that will challenge literacy is not currently available. Why would I use a lesser tool to convey these ideas?
A Strident Tone and Approach
Some readers have criticized what they see as a strident tone and approach. Hardly a thought experiment they say, Beyond Literacy is propaganda. It is presenting a single, unequivocal perspective; it doesn’t allow much room for disagreement. Perhaps. But judging from the fairly constant stream of critical comments and tweets, I would observe that people have found a way to engage in debate. They have articulated alternate views.
A more accurate criticism is that I want to have it both ways. This is the “hedging my bets” criticism. At one point I say literacy is doomed and its replacement is inevitable, but later I suggest that literacy will simply be no longer dominant. So what is it? Doomed or not dominant. Big difference. Fair criticism.
Let me try to be clear. Alphabetic literacy is doomed as a mainstream tool for communication and information exchange. Other tools, capabilities or capacities will become more effective and hence will dominate. Writing and reading will likely persist but their role will be so diminished that they will be a fetish.
Why Are the Students Agreeing with Post-Literacy?
Short answer? They are not. Well at least not most of them.
The Beyond Literacy experiment involves a class of graduate students at the iSchool, University of Toronto. They didn’t go to grad school or enroll in this class to be told what to think. They did this because they wanted to explore ideas, challenge orthodoxies, and engage with other vibrant minds.
I think that’s what Beyond Literacy does; it provides a platform for informed discourse.
I took an informal poll on the first day of classes. After hearing about the main premise of the course (and the book they were going to work on), I asked: Do you think writing and reading will be replaced or displaced? They could answer yes, no or maybe. The class was divided almost equally across those three responses.
Our discussions have exposed lots of disagreement and contention. Many of the students openly oppose my perspective and my ideas. And that is exactly how it should be. That is precisely what a graduate education is about.
I hope (and I do suspect) that the students from Beyond Literacy will leave this course at the end with a much deeper appreciation of literacy and their literate selves. I also think they will have engaged in a controversial debate in a respectful, open, and critical manner. And if this is the case, I will have done my job.
The Beyond Literacy Poll
The Beyond Literacy site has been running a poll since the launch. The question is : Will reading and writing be displaced or replaced?
As of today, the majority do not think reading and writing will be displaced or replaced (63%). However, 37% either think it will (10%) or it might be (27%). This is poll is not even close to being a valid instrument; it’s a statistical confection. What I take from this is merely that there is a divided response (much like the students in the class) to a possibility that would profoundly shape the human experience. And that’s why it is worth thinking about post-literacy.
Link: Comments Wordle
Link: A Student Responds …