Debating Literacy

My erudite colleague, John Miedema, has agreed to debate me at the Ontario Library Association SuperConference in February on the topic: “Beyond Literacy: Reading and Writing are Doomed.”

Eager to get started, John has already blogged part of his initial position: “We should not be too quick to declare the end of literacy.” Game on I say!

So, yes, I believe literacy (visible language; reading and writing) is doomed. Not because literacy is bad – on the contrary it is a fabulous, amazing capacity. It just isn’t enough.

Enough in the sense that as a tool it is beginning to fail us.

The post literate world, that which is beyond literacy, is not about digital media and e-stuff. We have to look past this low hanging fruit perspective. After all the Internet is clearly the largest, most important literate creation ever. Digital yes, but really a child of literacy in almost every respect.

No, the real issue (dare I say problem) is not about books (paper, digital, whatever), or the Internet (it really isn’t making us stupid), or any of the new media. The real issue it is that the tool we use as a fundamental building block for all this is showing its age: the alphabet.

The alphabet is the essence of literacy. Reading and writing are doomed because the alphabet is toast; it needs an upgrade; we need Alphabet 2.0.

It is hard for us to challenge literacy because we, as literate individuals, understand the world through a literate lens. As Walter Ong noted many years ago, writing “is a particularly pre-emptive and imperialistic activity” (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word). It is a box we eagerly get inside and then we are blinded to its limitations. Marshall McLuhan reminded of us “first we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man). Literacy is a tool, it is also a prison.

Being “anti-literacy” is not a very popular position but nor is it what I intend. For me post literacy is not some new Dark Age. It is the broadening of human potential; it is the opportunity to breakdown barriers among people; it is a very exciting future state.

Transitioning to post literacy will not be easy; transitioning to literacy wasn’t either (Plato was deeply suspicious of the alphabet; see Phaedrus; and he was right to be concerned, writing destroyed memory, the essence of his world of ideas).

So I will leave you with this thought: the future is not digital, it is biochemical.


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2 Responses to Debating Literacy

  1. Doug Horne says:

    Oh, this really spins off a lot of ideas …

    Of course, in the Platonic sense, writing is merely the symbolic representation of the shadow on the cave wall … it is (at least) two steps removed from the form. (I’m just making this up as I go along). I suppose (it’s been a while), that the likes of Derrida would talk about words making concepts overly “rigid” or codified or some such thing. Recently, I’ve been reading and listening to Hakim Bey, who talks about immediatism … the process of eliminating the mediating elements of experience as much as possible and having more “direct” experiences. He may, however, be a complete crackpot. Speaking of crackpots, my pal Nietzsche would suggest that all experience is mediated and subjective, and the idea of a “more direct experience” is just fanciful Socratic thinking … needless to say, I could go on, but I may not get any more right.

  2. Pingback: We already have Alphabet 2.0. It is computer programming. It does not satisfy like literacy. | Scratch

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