Assuming that one or more of these candidates for post-literacy succeeds, the transition is not likely to be simple or easy. Our understanding of the evolution from oral to literate cultures gives us some perspective on how the shift from literacy to post-literacy will occur. Literacy was not immediately accepted as a universal good and nor was it widely adopted.
Plato opposed the rise of literacy because he thought it would undermine the basis of knowledge in Greek society and would forever change the human condition (Phaedrus). He was correct on both counts. Literacy displaced memory and it slowly eroded the social and political structures upon which Greek society was based.
James Gleick (The Information, 2011) underscores the fundamental crisis writing caused among the Greeks. The rise of literacy resulted in a “cultural warfare, a new consciousness and a new language at war with the old consciousness and the old language.”
New capabilities or capacities of the extent necessary for post-literacy to exist will undoubtedly upset the status quo and cause disruption. Power will shift from literates to post-literates; there will be winners and losers. Suspicion and distrust will arise, and social unrest can be expected as society wrestles with the implications and effects of a post-literate world.
For many, our identities are intimately linked to our selves as literate beings. It is very hard to imagine a life without reading and writing. Despite the profound advantages offered by post-literacy, a sense of loss will also exist. This nostalgia could slow or mute the dissemination of post-literate abilities.
Literacy took centuries to evolve from limited and crude representations to the tools of mass literacy now widely available. Just as writing took time and experimentation to fully develop, so too with post-literacy. Early uses can be expected to be unsophisticated and crude to the extent that many will dismiss it has ineffective, insufficiently powerful, and not worthy of serious consideration. It may be that the real power of post-literacy will not be unrecognized until it evolves and matures.
There will, however, be early adopters willing to experiment and push the boundaries of human (or post-human) communication. For this small, select group there will be the power and the elitism of possessing a capacity far greater than others. Just as literacy was a tool to enable social control, so too could it be with post-literacy during its early stages. If post-literacy is accessed only by the economically advantaged (similar to literacy through most of its history) then the digital divide or the literacy divide will have a new expression: the post-literate and the non-post-literate. The former will be in substantial control of the latter.
Eventually, like mass literacy, post-literacy would become widespread if not universal. While other, darker, futures are possible, it may be that post-literacy disseminates much faster than visible language did and that the profound benefits would be available sooner and in a more egalitarian manner. We may welcome post-literacy for its promise of a better world even as we mourn its loss.
A significant concern about post-literacy, depending on the form it takes, is that it could become a commodity to be bought and sold. For example, a drug to impart a language or “download” a technical manual, would be marketed and available to only those able to pay. In this world the notion of “intellectual property” takes on an interesting, and dark, twist. New knowledge would be pharmacologically encoded, patented, and commercialized. Would generic knowledge drug companies emerge? Would the new Napster or BitTorrent move chemicals not data? Would the new public library be a free drug dispensary to ensure equitable access to information and knowledge?
The alphabet is not owned or ownable. Literacy is a capacity outside the marketplace. Post-literacy, however, could evolve as a product or a service. As such it could become commoditized by private interests and access restricted by financial means. The public policy issues abound.
“We may become smarter, through chronic use of nootropics, and we may also be able to create a sanitized internal live through selective memory-reconstruction technology. Are we destined to lead a cosmeticized conscious existence, beret of negative experiences and overflowing with positive false memories? Will those in power gain the extra weapon of mind control, the ability to wipe our memories of political misdeeds clean and implant edited ones in their place?” Sam Cooke, p. 142-43 What’s Next?
The dark side of post-literacy is potentially very dark indeed. The commodification of information that concerns us in the digital world would be vastly more troubling in a biochemical post-literate future. Big Pharma would replace the Big Media. The new dangers would arise:
Consumerization of the mind
Assuming these things don’t devastate us, post-literacy will become the dominant means of communication and understanding. Reading and writing may not disappear but using it will be quaint, even nostalgic, a fetish. We know that one technology does not fully replace its predecessors. However, while neither radio or movies nor television has been displaced by newer media, the telegraph seems to have all but disappeared. The alphabet is likely to persist even as it becomes less and less central to our lives. Literacy will be an arcane capacity of the intellectual hobbyists. It will fade from the mainstream.
However, just as Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies,1994) believes digital media will “mean differently” so too will post-literacy cause us to think differently. Mitchell Stephens in his book about the preeminence of images (The Rise of the Image The Fall of the Word,1998) describes the unsettling nature of that shift:
“This new form of communication, wherever it is leading us, is probably not going to restore our old ways of looking at the world. Fondly remembered certitudes about reality are unlikely to return. Truths revealed on brightly lit surfaces are unlikely to resemble truths uncovered in dark spaces within. The place beyond irony and cynicism, if there is such a place, is unlikely to look like sincerity. We are going to have to deal with new, unfamiliar and often discomfiting notions. Many of us will find that we ‘can no longer think what we want to think.’ Indeed, many of us already have.”