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Monday, June 29, 2009

Will Literacy Die and Will the Post-Literature World Arrive?

The future of literacy has certainly been on rocky ground in recent years. With the advent of radio, then television, followed by the Internet and cellphones, it would seem that much of the "civilized" world is heading towards a future in which the literate are not necessarily required in order to keep the gears rolling. Of course, this is probably pretty true of most any time following proto-industrialization processes, but it is curious how we have gone from technologies that almost literally (no pun intended) negate the necessity for literate labor, to technologies that actually benefit from laborers having some sort of literacy-related degree or education.

But are we headed to a post-literate world, one in which the dominant mode of communication does not necessitate the use of reading or writing? I don't think we're at a point in our technological society to make such a determination. We're always headed to some sort of proposed future. At some point the Sun will die and take us with it; at some point we will be at war with somebody, or someone else will be at war, or someone will kill someone, etc.

Yes, we will likely reach a point in the future where literacy will not be required, but I don't see that as something around the corner. I don't think we're "headed" there so much as "ending up" there. Right now, literacy is more necessary than it ever was, post-industrialism, even if the forms of literacy are not "official" or "desirable." Textspeak/chatspeak are sort of an alternative, albeit degenerate dialect that has and probably will continue to be a dominant method of communication for young and and adult alike for decades to come. But it is not an indicator of a loss of literacy so much as a loss of connection with a societal language--i.e. English, etc.

And you cannot forget about how the Internet, Twitter, Amazon, iPhones, etc. have all drastically changed how we deal with the written language. How can we possibly say we're at a point now where we can see a logical futural point in which the ability to read and write will die away? I'd argue that more people today are using the skills they learned in school than kids (now adults) from earlier generations predating the Internet. These technologies will continue to exist and dominate the social landscape in the foreseeable future. The modes of transfer may be different (we might, for example, figure out a way to connect the brain to Twitter), but some level of literacy will still be necessary in order for such services to work (you might not write your tweets anymore, but you'll still have to read them unless text-to-speech becomes popular and powerful enough to actually be useful to most people).

A post-literate society would require a drastic shift from technologies dependent upon literate users to technologies that demand visual and/or audio competence. We're not there yet; in fact, we're a long ways away. True, things are changing, but the push by electronic users for electronic means of accessing subjects of literary form has shifted cultural interests in said forms. More people are reading books in 2009 than were in 2008, and 2007, etc. I suspect that reading numbers will continue to increase as the ebook market takes firmer hold, something that I thought might never happen on the same scale we are seeing (even I can be far off the mark).

The real question is whether our schools can adequately prepare the next generation for the kind of world they will deal with culturally, socially, technologically, and politically. I don't think so, but I also have ridiculous requests for the education systems in the U.S. and elsewhere.

What about you? Do you think we're heading towards a post-literate world? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments or fire off an email to arconna[at]yahoo[dot]com.

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