What is Post-Literacy? Part 2

Beyond Literacy has been exploring the idea of “post-literacy.” A number of the commentators have argued that this concept is both problematic and misguided. They suggest, among other things, that my view of literacy is too limited or even too expansive.

The question “what is post-literacy?” is entangled in the larger question “what is literacy?” For the most part we have been forced to define post-literacy not by what it is, but by what it is not. The students in the Beyond Literacy class posted their own response:

LinkLink: What is Post-Literacy? Part 1

The site explores the idea of “polymodal literacy,” a combination of  visual, interactive, computational, and textual literacies. Like the “transliteracy” initiative, this is literacy in a larger context:

“Literacy can encompasses multiple communication technologies. It includes legacy media like written text and visual communication. But it now extends to computational and interactive literacy. Using digital technologies like the Web requires familiarity with interactive models, while understanding how those technologies operate requires familiarity with computational processes and structures.”

However, the site concludes by observing that “eventually these technologies, too, rely on text to function and to perpetuate themselves.”

What about these other literacies? Are they substantive enough to be the foundation or the platform for an emergent post-literacy?

LinkLink: Gaming as a Literacy

LinkLink: Images and Video as a Literacy

Positioning alphabetic or notational literacy (reading and writing) at the core of other literacies or capabilities brings us back to the “literacy theory” or the “alphabetic effect” referenced earlier and raised specifically by Lane Wilkinson in his Beyond Beyond Literacy post. Did the alphabet uniquely advantage Western civilization by providing the foundation for intellectual achievements unavailable to non-alphabetic cultures?

LinkLink: The Alphabet Effect

The idea of “post-literacy” is not new. In Counterblast (1954), Marshall McLuhan referred to the “postliterate acoustic space” resulting from the new electric media. This phrase links to Ong’s concept of “secondary orality” (Orality and Literacy,1982) as a characteristic of electronic culture.

Many others have used the term post-literacy to simply identify the perceived decline in the quality of literacy in a digital age; it is an assessment of the condition of contemporary culture. However, recently commentators have started to use the term to envision a future state in which literacy is no longer dominant.

Patrick Tucker, in The Dawn of the Postliterate Age, reluctantly concedes that the power of a post-literate capacity (something he defines as “thinking, talking and accessing” in a simultaneous, “indistinguishable” manner) would cause literacy to lose its “viability:”

“The advent of instantaneous brain-to-brain communication, while inferior to the word in its ability to communicate intricate meaning, may one day emerge as superior in terms of simply relaying information quickly. The notion that the written word and the complex system of grammatical and cultural rules governing its use would retain its viability in an era where thinking, talking, and accessing the world’s storehouse of information are indistinguishable seems uncertain at best.”

Tucker’s view of post-literacy is a predominately a consumption-based model; using post-literate means to access information. Janneke Adema, in her Open Reflections blog post on “Post Literacy“, includes the need to create as well as consume:

“the move towards a post literate society is not only about being able to analyze and interpret polymodal ways of communicating, but also about being able to produce these forms of communication in a good (and comprehensible) way.”

Creating in a post-literate way, for Doug Johnson (Libraries for a Postliterate Society), means:

“a return to more natural forms of multisensory communication—speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as easily as writing. Information, emotion, and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multimedia formats.”

Johnson’s multimedia view brings us back to the problem of post-literacy has a kind of “hyper literacy” by extending it into a polymodal literacy engaging other types of literacies or media. Literacy hasn’t been replaced or displaced; it many ways it hasn’t even been diminished. It remains core to the definitions of these observers.

Jaron Lanier is one of the early researchers and innovators in virtual reality. He is also a fierce critic of much of contemporary IT (especially social media). But in his book You Are Not A Gadget (2010) he makes an interesting case for a post-literate world that, while human, is unlike anything else we’ve discussed so far:

LinkLink: Jaron Lanier and Postsymbolic Communication

Addendum November 26, 2012

John Miedema, a wonderful colleague and an ardent defender of literacy, recently contributed the following video response and challenge:

“Beyond Literacy” ( is a thought experiment about post-literacy by Mike Ridley and students at the University of Toronto. Here is a video response by me, a light-hearted poke at post-literacy and a lead in to some real questions. Is post-literacy just another term for enlightenment? If yes, what kind?

Addendum: December 7, 2012

A student in the Beyond Literacy course responds to John:


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

  1. gregorylent November 22, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    post-literacy is an obvious next step for the mind’s merging with the essence of that which we wish to know …

    there are some lectures about this by caroline corey,, i think they are being called new-paradigm education.

  2. bdleaf April 30, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Recently thought about Beyond Literacy, and as I was revising it, I was reminded of something. The online riddle ( ) seems like it could be a potential “post-literate” exercise. It requires the player to move beyond basic textual cues and consider what message is being communicated. It may be through deeper visual, audio, or technical means that it’s deciphered–things that aren’t second nature to all of us.

  3. Zoe May 7, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    Doug Johnson’s view of creating in a post-literate manner (in the aforementioned Libraries for a Postliterate Society), speaks to the kind of role that Socrates valued in orality; in fact, I view his opinion of the move towards “hyper literacy” or post-literacy as a kind of return to the debate surrounding the spread of literacy in ancient Greece, though in markedly opposite directions. Johnson suggests that in a post-literate world, we will see “a return to more natural forms of multisensory communication—speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization.” These “natural forms” were exactly what Socrates so vehemently sought to protect as writing became a more invasive technology. In chapter 15 of Plato’s Phaedrus (“The Superiority of the Spoken Word. Myth of the Invention of Writing), Socrates voices concern that “if men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written” (157). In Socrates’ protest of writing as it relates to forgetfulness there is a connection to the idea of singular, literary media and multimedia formats: only one dimension or sense may be conveyed through literacy, whereas in Johnson’s idea of a multisensory communication, “information, emotion, and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multimedia formats.”

    In connecting the two debates further, I look to Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, a work much referenced by this project. In chapter 3 (“The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates’ Protests”), Wolf looks to Socrates’ assertions about writing, noting that “Socrates lost the fight against the spread of literacy because he could not yet see the full capacities of written language and because there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge” (78). In looking to our inevitable shift towards post-literacy, I feel we all are similarly limited in our ability to see the “full capacities” of what it might become, or what it might entail for society or humanity. It is comforting to acknowledge (as in this article), that “literacy hasn’t been replaced or displaced; in many ways it hasn’t ever been diminished”—much as the spoken word has remained in many ways our primary tool of communication. In fact, as we move towards post-literacy, Socrates may have his precious orality returned to its superior position—particularly if post-literacy does, in fact, mean “a return to more natural forms of multisensory communication” as Johnson considers.

    • Michael Ridley May 13, 2013 at 10:19 am #

      Not to be too flippant, but what if visible language is simply a blip in human history? A stage we had to move through; a part of a longer learning curve? The idea of post-literacy as a sort of new orality (see Ong on this) may reinforce the view of Socrates (and be comforting in a nostalgic way) but it doesn’t scale without another dimension (for example, a network-based, knowledge infrastructure like we have currently for text; see Weinberger, Too Big To Know on this). An extreme view on this is Lanier’s “post symbolic communications” (You Are Not A Gadget).

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