Towards Post Literacy: Machine Intelligence

My colleague John Miedema and I are having a discussion about the future of literacy. It’s part of a more formal debate to be held at the Ontario Library Association SuperConference in February. Join us.

These exchanges are the warm-up. We are being earnest and provocative (in the most frivolous and entertaining way possible).

For those just catching up, here’s the story so far:

John’s initial post, “We should not be too quick to declare the end of literacy“, setup his defense of literacy. I responded with “Debating Literacy” reminding us that visible language (reading and writing) is a prison; a way of thinking and being that obstructs other perspectives. John picked up on my Alphabet 2.0 reference with “We already have Alphabet 2.0. It is computer programming. It does not satisfy like literacy.”

OK. Now it’s back to me. John’s argument so far goes something like this:

  • reading and writing are good
  • literacy is important
  • computing is good, but not as good
  • what’s wrong with you Ridley anyway?

OK, perhaps I’ve slightly simplified John’s position. Forgive me [mischievous grin].

John is a proponent of “slow reading.” His book, appropriately titled Slow Reading, is highly recommended (however misguided it is … see below). Against the pace of the modern world, John asks us to slow down and engage with the text in a more deliberate, reflective, and focused way.

Nice concept. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. Slow down and smell the roses.


I will argue, in the nicest possible way, that slow reading is a cowardly retreat from the challenge of a hyper-connected, always on, information ecology. That’s the way things are, and will be. Get over it. Better yet, find a way to deal with it. And stopping the world to get off is not an option. Conventional literacy isn’t going to cut it in such a world. Sorry.

My position does have a significant flaw: I don’t actually know what “post literacy” will be. It’s a thought experiment. We will become post literate in the indeterminate future.

But the signs and signals are already here.

Let’s consider “machine intelligence” (a better way to describe what is often thought of as “artificial intelligence”; after all, there is nothing “artificial” about it – unless of course your only frame of reference is the meatware one: humans).

Protest though we might, computers (and their networks) are on track to be “smarter” than us easily by the middle of this century. I say “smarter” in quotations because we define smart in human terms; machines are unlikely to achieve that standard. But in other terms, smarter than us they will be.

In his recent novel, Surface Detail, Iain Banks wonders what a cyborg will do to entertain itself in picoseconds while it’s waiting for humans to finish their sentences. [Yes, I do realize that referencing novels as a way to promote post literacy is ironic in the extreme. I’ve always been challenged by that consistency thing.]

What will we do?

We will offload the heavy cognitive lifting to trusted machines.

We will engage with them when we need to know something.

Cool. And worrisome. And yet cool too.

But this is still not post literacy. These are the tools and the infrastructure that will support post literacy.

As I said previously, think biochemical, not digital. More on this later.


I’ve just noticed that John has blogged again. I will respond to this later.

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2 Responses to Towards Post Literacy: Machine Intelligence

  1. John says:

    Thanks for the reply Mike. Now things are heating up, just the way I like them. Count on my reply this weekend.

  2. Pingback: Stories have endings: The boundedness of literacy is what makes it useful in the real world | Scratch

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