Towards Post-Literacy

Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment. It challenges us to think about the power, and limitations, of traditional literacy (reading and writing) and to imagine a tool, capability or capacity which would replace it or displace it.

The journey so far has raised many objections and concerns. Readers and participants we have expressed outrage, and others, more prosaically, just dismissal. However, according to our (completely unscientific) poll 10% agree this will happen and 26% think it is a possibility. Others, I hope, have been challenged to think differently about literacy even if they don’t accept the idea of post-literacy.

What we think of as “literacy” has many definitions. Visible language (writing systems; reading and writing) are intimately connected to who we are as humans and as individuals. But the alphabet, and other notational systems, are just tools, just inventions. And yet their use has transformed us in ways we could never have imagined or predicted. As a result, proposing the end of literacy is simply too much for most people; it is, effectively, the end of themselves.

Beyond Literacy was designed to be provocative (“reading and writing are doomed” is a headline not an argument) and it was meant to be participatory. But it was also meant to be quite serious. It follows in the long tradition of us asking ourselves: what’s next?

Literacy is not as threatened or as fragile as much of this text might suggest. It will change and evolve more than it will disappear. The future is probably some sort of hyper-literacy with cognitive attachments or extensions of various types (technology, pharmacology, etc.). Perhaps we might even discover (uncover) a capability that lies dominant or undeveloped (telepathy for example). Previous chapters have discussed the possibility of all these and commentators have added others.

Many of these things will likely come to pass. But none of these things, separately or collectively, will displace or replace reading and writing; none of these is post-literate. All these assume an essential foundation of literacy. Literacy survives these and like the Internet, perhaps even enhances and elevates literacy (the Internet is the most successful experiment in literacy the world has ever seen; hardly a foreshadowing of the decline of literacy).

In other words, all this discussion about possible post-literate conditions is good, it’s just not good enough.

The basis for post-literacy will be as revolutionary as were writing systems for their time. Of course the alphabet, for example, didn’t appear overnight, fully developed. It took millennia to evolve into what we now know as literacy. Will post-literacy be a bolt of lightning? Will it come out of the blue? Students in one of my undergraduate classes exasperatedly concluded that it would be brought to us from aliens? Not such a strange idea; some in NASA agree:

LinkLink: Aliens, William Burroughs, and the Postbiological Universe

However, it seems more likely that as profound as post-literacy would be, it will evolve into our lives, not arrive suddenly. It will gradually emerge, strengthening and deepening as it become more effective and intimate. We may not even notice it is happening, until it has happened.

And this is how I think it will occur.

Our early understanding of quantum computing has already articulated the extraordinary possibilities of this as a means to create powerful, ubiquitous machines. Harnessing this methodology would dramatically advance our cognitive capabilities and our understanding of the world. In a recent talk, Neil Turok, (Director of the Perimeter Institute, one of the world’s foremost centres for theoretical physics) predicated that that an operational quantum computer was only 18 months away (“it is very soon”) with commercialized versions in a decade or two (again, very soon).

Quantum computing lays the foundation for the next critical development: machine intelligence. Not “artificial” intelligence in the sense of machines that think like humans but intelligence defined in a less human-centric way:

“Intelligence is measured by the predictive ability of a hierarchical memory, not by humanlike behaviour.” Jeff Hawkins (On Intelligence, 2004).

Machine intelligence prepares the way for transhumans or post-humans. Post-literacy is a tool, capacity or capability emerging from a post-biological world.

We, humans, are fond of our position as the most intelligent beings on earth and in the universe (the former seems likely, the latter probably not). We have countless volumes of speculations (science fiction, philosophy) about the rise of intelligent machines and, mostly, how dystopian that would be. However, intelligent machines, sentient machines, will be very useful to us. They will help us solve some of our most perplexing problems; they will lead us into fertile new areas of knowledge; they will become our most important cognitive prosthetics. Then they will become us.

Human evolution is now technological not biological. We/They are creating our/their future selves.

Will our devotion to this mortal coil cause us to deny the possibilities of advanced evolution? I doubt it. There will be a period of anxiety and anguish. There will be heated and emotional discussions of what is being lost. And things will be lost. But this is not a case of technological determinism. We will choose this future because it is the one that offers us the best hope. Yes it is fraught with dangers; even more so is the status quo.

So post-literacy is about human evolution. It is about transforming ourselves (as we did with writing systems) into a new, richer state of being. It will mean becoming something different in order to preserve what we are.


One Response to “Towards Post-Literacy”

  1. Jerry Kelly February 12, 2017 at 11:41 pm #

    I haven’t read everything on this site, so picked a more or less random page on which to leave my comment.


    The objects of literacy are strings of symbols that humans consume and produce.

    Machines now consume and produce the same symbols, but the strings, both upon input and output, are structured somewhat differently than those typically consumed and produced by humans. Moreover, humans created the systems – again using the same symbolic inventory – by which the machines function.

    Human life now relies in part on these machines, whose function is based on processing strings of man-made symbols, a function that will never be able to be performed directly by humans. At the same time, humans must maintain these systems

    Now that this phase of the transition is complete – the creation of a shared tool upon which all cultures at least in part rely, but based on the deconstruction of literacy – it is intriguing to note the historical trajectory of these symbolic systems.

    These systems arose out of at least two distinct cultural impulses to harness human language or communication. Alphabetic systems, such as the Roman alphabet, arose essentially as an ongoing effort to analyze the sound aspect of speech, the result being collections of symbols that more or less reflect the limited phonemic inventory of human languages. Successful logographic systems, such as written Chinese, arose out of efforts to establish an exhaustive collection of concepts that might ever be expressed in any aspect of society through speech. The result is a comparatively enormous collection of comparatively complex symbols, the most commonly used reflecting the most commonly expressed by people at large at one time.

    What these two trajectories now have in common is their origin in the simple notion or fact that the essence of speech is syntactic. Whether you conceive of speech as making sound or expressing ideas, what emerges is one symbol after another. The West concentrated on analyzing the sound; The East concentrated on faithfully acknowledging the full potential of human expression. These tendencies, not exactly surprisingly, somewhat neatly reflect the levels of modern linguistic analysis, at least in the West. If we start at syntax (universal) and go ‘down’, we run into phonemics, phonology, phonetics (alphabetic). If we go ‘up’, we encounter semantics and pragmatics (logographic).

    In brief, literacy is the result of humanity’s collective effort to understand language – speech and thought; to understand that phenomenon which differentiates humanity from other species of life.

    It is now upon us to continue following these two trajectories – alphabetic and logographic – into the common global digital infrastructure. To what extent does digital technology rely on the use of alphabetic systems compared to its reliance on logographic systems? As people have less and less time to achieve and maintain traditional literacy, to what extent will they be capable of maintaining systems that run on the same elements that constitute their (the people’s) very lack of literacy? Will the literacy necessary to maintain systems of digital technology eventually necessarily – naturally? – bridge existing cultural and linguistic gulfs? Will the gulfs remain, with each linguistic community relating to the bewildering but common symbolic foundation in its own way? Or will humanity simply continue becoming more diverse and heterogeneous, with differences only discernible by hypothetical outside observers?

    Humanity divided itself through the natural evolution of thousands of spoken languages. Literacy did not multiply these differences! It reflects the single never-mentioned human linguistic universal: unidirectional syntax – flat strings. But it also reflects a lessening of division: there are fewer writing systems than spoken languages, and arguably even fewer types of writing systems, such as alphabetic and logographic. Perhaps post-literacy will necessarily unify, strictly within the bowels of the digital realm, the relatively few differences that remain, while allowing for a flourishing of dominant spoken languages and renewal of endangered and even extinct spoken languages.

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