What is Post-Literacy? Part 1

Note: the next two chapters address the same basic question: what is post-literacy? Part 1 is a contribution from the Editorial Team from the Beyond Literacy class. Part 2 is a contribution from Mike Ridley (the instructor in the course and the principal author of the other chapters).


Post-literacy is the movement of communication and understanding beyond visible language.

What will it mean to be post-literate? One group,, is also asking this question. They use the term “polymodal literacy,” which adds “computational and interactive literacy,” to the “legacy media” of written text and visual communication (, 2012). Is the shift away from visible language inevitable? Will the replacement be a more powerful tool than the written word? Will there be quicker connections, closer connections, or both? Will post-literacy have a transformational effect on humans?  What will we become, or are we already becoming?

Transliteracy, as defined by the American Library Association, “is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” (ALA, 2012). Transliteracy is already  an essential skill in our connected world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization recognized the importance of other literacies when it designated October 27 as “World Day for Audiovisual Heritage” (UNESCO, 2010).

The literate world of Western Europe displaced and changed the oral cultures it encountered. So too will the post-literate world displace and transform literate societies. We are now in the realm of William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, Marshall McLuhan, and Gene Roddenberry. What will be lost? What will be gained? Are we already in a time of transition? This anxiety is illustrated in promotional posters for the Literacy Foundation that depict fairy tale characters as critically ill. In one, Cinderella is hooked up to an IV with the tagline, “When a child doesn’t read, imagination disappears.” The irony of this image is that the Brothers Grimm collected and modified traditional folk tales from a disappearing oral culture, writing them down, and locking them in to the now-familiar versions of the printed and published Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Literacy Foundation Cinderella©Literacy Foundation (2012)

What is wrong with our reliance on the written word? To answer this, we must look to the past, to examine what was lost in the transition from oral to written.  What might be regained, not by returning to the past, but by re-envisioning the present and the future? Will imagination re-appear in different forms? In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan points out that the invention of moveable type in the mid-15th Century organized perceptions “along the straight lines of the printed page.” The use of electricity in the 19th and 20th Centuries produced “a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word replaced with the icon and the rebus” (Marshall McLuhan cited in Lewis Lapham, 2012). In Word Order: The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear (2012), Lewis Lapham asks, “in which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response?”

There is a already a definition of post-literacy in use in continuing education, for those individuals who have come late to literacy. While this is not what we mean by post-literacy, it is useful to keep this other definition in mind as we imagine ourselves in a post-literate world. Support and continuing learning opportunities for the post-literate, or neo-literate adult are often described in terms of NFE (non-formal education) – not books and texts, but other forms of communication, for example, radio (World Bank, Post-Literacy and Continuing Education for Human Development Project, 2012). If we are in a transitional time where visible language is losing its usefulness and falling away, most of us will be neophytes in terms of letting go of our old ways of thinking – going beyond the linearity of the printed page, the PowerPoint presentation, the black-and-white mindset, and into the search for “new presentations…to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable” (Jean-François Lyotard, as quoted in Alan Aycock, Post-literacy, 1992).


As the above examples suggest, defining post-literacy is challenging. Part of the problem is that we define post-literacy in comparison to literacy and then primarily to reading and writing. Perhaps the only people who can adequately define post-literacy are those living in a post-literate culture. Imagine an oral culture that, without outside influence, began changing to a literate culture. Would those people on the vanguard of this change be able to define what a literate culture would look like to their fellow citizens? Or to themselves?

Despite this challenge, we have adopted the following definition as a starting point for the discussion. Post-literacy will be a technology, tool or collection of tools and technologies that will enable us to transfer information more efficiently and effectively than reading and writing (Patrick Tucker, Dawn of the Post-Literate Age, 2012). This is not a perfect definition but it gives us a place to start. It does not tell us what the post-literate world would look like but that is the point of the Beyond Literacy project. Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment that aims to suggest what post-literacy may look like as opposed to defining what it will look like.


2 Responses to “What is Post-Literacy? Part 1”