Jedi mind tricks, thought-crimes, global Machine, cyborgs, Cylons, the Borg. Aside from invoking memories of well-loved science-fiction films, television shows, and literature, this relatively short list of sci-fi subjects provides an appropriate starting point for a discussion about post-literacy to occur. Without being definitive, it is unlikely that one could easily think of an example of science-fiction that does not engage with some sort of advanced technology or stretch beyond that of our current literate world. Despite the fact that a post-literate society seems increasingly believable with each new technological discovery (think research being done with fMRI, DNA manipulation, or the latest iPhone model), for many, a society void of visible reading and writing is unnatural and so it remains a topic more suitable for science-fiction. Knowing this, it becomes increasingly necessary to answer the question “What does science-fiction tell us about post-literacy?” To answer quickly and simply (or not so simply), science fiction tells us that a post-literate existence is good, it is bad, and it is ambiguous. Regardless, it is clear that most science-fiction supports the idea that post-literacy, to one degree or another, is indeed humanity’s future.
The futures, rewritten pasts, alternate universes, and unknown galaxies explored in the pages and images of science fiction are not necessarily or inherently frightening. Rather, audiences interpret them as frightening because they are often implausible. A world with reading and writing is natural and thus a world without it is unnatural. Similarly, a world dominated by such post-literate candidates as machine intelligence or robots is usually interpreted to mean that humans are either in servitude or no longer exist – implausible and frightening. Some science fiction attempts to temper this terror by creating post-literate societies in which humans are still present and have been given the opportunity to retain their humanity. While a world without literacy is not easy to comprehend, a world without humans is almost more incomprehensible. As a result, there seems to be a definite trend in science-fiction to remain human-centric, even in post-literate narratives.
We have identified three themes through which science fiction expresses post-literacy. The first, “external additions”, depicts humans who keep their individuality. Either humanity as we know it remains through a changing post-literate world, or we are made “better” through new technologies and tools. Topics covered topics here include bio-computing, virtual realities, neural prosthetics, and even machine intelligence. The portrayals of external additions tend to be positive as they show a progression of human technologies for the betterment of the species. The Star Trek universe provides an example of a world similar to our own, though enhanced with various post-literate tools, such as the holodeck and the ship computer intelligence. Neural prosthetics and immersive virtual reality are also a strong vein of external addition science-fiction, as seen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Though typically positive, external additions which start to cause a separation from reality or individuality (such as the Borg from Star Trek) tend to be viewed as neutral or even negative. One last facet, typically darker and more dystopian, is machine intelligence. Though humans remain acting characters in many sci-fi narratives concerning post-literacy, they are sometimes at the mercy of a larger, more powerful machine intelligence. Science fiction regularly tells us that machine intelligence will continue to expand and grow, initially with our help and then progressively on its own (machines creating machines). This is rarely portrayed in a positive light; look at The Matrix for a prime example.
The second theme, “internal changes”, deals with various shifts inside our brains, bodies, or spirits which push us out of the literate world. In these stories, the post-literate future is either negative, (sometimes warily) positive, or silently neutral. With such grand changes in our neurology come questions about what it means to be human; could we change so much as to not be definable as human any longer? How do we sympathize differently with these characters, and what does that mean about our definition of humanity? The Borg personify some of these post-human worries. As humans, we value our individuality very highly as we have never existed outside of it; the Borg plays on the fear of losing this as a terrifying monolith of drones who take away the only existence we have ever known. On the other hand, Robert J. Sawyer’s Triggers speculates a collective consciousness that allows us to overcome our perceived differences – racial, political, etc. – and develop a humanity-wide empathy. See 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke, for other examples of post-literate human evolution.
It may be generous to call the third theme, “fall from literacy”, post-literate. These are typically portrayed as dystopic backlashes against reading and writing; more like throwbacks to a pre-literate culture than peeks at a post-literate one. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a classic example of this theme. These dystopias are clear messages of how we value reading and writing. It is linked to intelligence, enlightenment, and progress, as shown by the stupidity and backwardness we suffer when literacy is forgotten. This theme can be seen as the opposite of “external additions”, as it typically paints technology as the bad guy; in one view, technology ushers in a new tool of communication or age of humanity, and in the other, it destroys everything we hold dear and thrusts us back to a primitive society.
Overall, science fiction consistently tells us that post-literacy is indeed a definite part of our future. Because of this, we believe that humanity should choose to accept rather than fight against post-literacy, since, as we all know, “resistance is futile.”