Archive for November, 2012

Beyond ‘Beyond Literacy’

By pink hats, red shoes on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Last week I stumbled across an interesting thought-experiment put forth by the Beyond Literacy project. The project, organized by Michael Ridley, former Chief Librarian at Guelph, asks that we posit a “post-literate future…in which literacy (reading and writing; visible language) has been displaced, replaced, or exceeded by a new or evolved capacity, capability or tool.” [link]. Imagine: a world in which reading and writing are no longer dominant or even important means of communicating information. What would such a world look like? Ridley points to neural prosthetics, telepathy, collective consciousness, and other “trans-humanist” possibilities, though he is careful to acknowledge that, from our current, thoroughly literate situation, it’s difficult to make predictions. Hence, the thought-experiment. You should really go and read it, or at least read the first chapter. Then, come back for my initial thoughts on the post-literate condition.

Back already? Dang, that was quick. It’s almost as if you only read part way down the Beyond Literacy introduction before yelling “NO, DAMN IT, NO!” with such force that your browser ran back here to hide. And, you know, if you’re a librarian, having a  knee-jerk reaction is entirely justifiable. I mean, Ridley has got to be trolling us, right? The very first claims he makes are: “reading and writing are doomed” and “literacy as we know it is over.” What the heck!? Well, in his defense, I think that a visceral reaction to a clearly provocative theory is kind of the point. Beyond Literacy is a thought-experiment: it’s meant to test our intuitions and make us think about literacy from a novel, if not original, position. Thought-experiments have enormous pedagogical value and, what’s more, they can be kind of fun, too. After all, asking what the world would be like without literacy isn’t all that different from asking what the world would be like with zombies, and we certainly enjoy doing that. At least, we sometimes do…


However, not all thought-experiments succeed equally. Some thought-experiments stand the test of time: Plato’s cave allegory, Descartes’ method of doubt, Foot’s trolley problem, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” Other thought-experiments, not so much. Though I appreciate the sincerity that Ridley brings to Beyond Literacy, I think the entire project fails on account of its argumentative structure, its methodological foundations, an extremely limited interpretation of ‘literacy’, and a general inconsistency in both terminology and presentation. I’m going to address the concerns, but first I should probably attempt to reconstruct his argument(s) as charitably as possible, so that we’re all on the same page.

The Argument: Literacy is doomed

Except, I can’t. Ridley doesn’t provide an overarching argument for post-literacy. Instead, in nine “chapters” we get a series of reflections on literacy that read more like a commonplace book than an extended argument about reading and writing. In particular, Ridley appeals to the technological determinism of the Toronto School of communication theory (Marshall McLuhan and Eric Havelock) and its descendants (Neil Postman, David Weinberger), proponents of the “literacy thesis” (Walter Ong), assorted futurists (Ray Kurzweil, Max Brockman), and new-age mysticism masquerading as science (Fritjof Capra) among others. In total, Ridley cites about 130 sources in a series of posts totaling fewer than 9,000 words (I counted). The presentation is thus heavily influenced by McLuhan’s mosaic approach: no linear argumentation, no consistent case of evidence, no commitment to coherence. It’s just a whole lot of references to a motley crew of sources and its up to us to figure out what to make of it. For a thought-experiment, the “I’m going to say some random things to get you talking” approach can work rather well, but Ridley’s penchant for absolute statements leads me to believe that there must be some structure or underlying argument. So, here’s a brief overview of what he has to say about post-literacy…

In Chapter 1, Ridley begins by establishing some basic observations about reading and writing: “the alphabet is simply a tool…[h]umans excel in making tools…[so] it only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.”

In Chapter 2, Ridley admits that “reading and writing are good”: reading is a “profound,” “subversive”, and meaningful activity. Yet, the onslaught of digital texts complicates our traditional relationship with reading. So, though reading and writing are good, “they are just not good enough.”

Chapter 3, focuses on reading as an addiction and it’s pretty much a red herring. The only relevant line is the last, wherein Ridley posits that we may be “blind to the possibility of a future beyond literacy, beyond our drug.” Our deep-seated affection for literacy might compromise our ability to envision a world without it.

In Chapter 4, Ridley correctly notes that, rather than being harbingers of the “perceived decline of literacy,” media like the Internet are, in fact, parasitic on literacy: the Internet represents “the triumph of literacy not its demise.” As such, Ridley claims, “a replacement for literacy will require a greater level of capability and capacity than that of these relatively primitive technologies.” This is all well and good, but in the second half of the chapter, Ridley busts out some stunning non sequiturs: Literacy is doomed “because it is very hard to master” (which, I suppose, is why so few of us can read). Writing is ” difficult, imprecise, and highly prone to error and misinterpretation.” Quoting Ong, literacy is “aggressive.” Referencing Shlain, literacy represents “the rise of patriarchy and the decline of feminine values and egalitarianism [sic].” And, quoting Levi-Strauss, “the primary function of writing…is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.” The descent into absurdity is palpable.

He was just pissed that he could never get his monkey to talk.
by sidknee23 on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Chapter 5 begins with some statistics about world literacy rates, moves to some statistics about the explosion in publishing and reading in the United States and then makes the following perplexing observation, presented here in its entirety, without comment:

“If literacy marks the transition from thinking about things to thinking about the representation of things (abstractions, ideas, thought) then post-literacy may be understood not as dealing with abstractions but embodiment. Later we will talk about post-literacy and dance.”

Chapter 6 visits David Weinberger’s “too big to know” argument: the Internet provides access to more information than we could ever process, so cognition is evolving into a networked system of “web-form thought” as opposed to the “long-form thinking” ushered in by the book. (Elsewhere, I’ve already discussed how incoherent this argument is.)

Chapter 7 asks that we “explore languages and societies as they transition from an oral culture to a literate culture” as a means of understanding how our communication media (or, literacy) affect the brain and cognition. Curiously, Ridley cites Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, and Jack Goody as proponents of this approach, despite the fact that they never did any anthropological research to substantiate their claims that literacy conditions cognition. (In contrast, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole (1981) actually did explore the transition from an oral to a literate culture. Her research showed that Havelock, Ong, and Goody were dead wrong.) In any event, the chapter provides a series of observations related to how literacy ostensibly rewires the brain. Post-literacy, it follows, must be geared towards “creating or evolving the post-literate brain.”

Chapter 8 begins with the pronouncement that “[i]f we can agree that post-literacy is a positive development…then we need to consider what would it be like.” In the absence of any arguments to the effect that post-literacy is a positive development, this comes across as yet another non-sequitur. The chapter then describes how “reading and writing will not be easily displaced” despite the (ill-defined) “fatal flaws” of literacy.

Finally, Chapter 9 provides examples of post-literacy: the aforementioned cognitive prosthetics, telepathy, collective consciousness, smart drugs, and all-around trans-humanism, ending with a reference to a supposed “Bill of Rights” for robots in South Korea. Aside from a bunch of excited, though ambiguous, news stories from 2007, I can find no evidence that the government of South Korea ever actually considered such a thing.

So, there you have it. “Beyond Literacy.” Literacy is good, but it isn’t good enough, so we need to start thinking about the next stage in human communication and development. Hence, the thought-experiment. Only, I’m unconvinced that the thought-experiment can even get off the ground until a few serious flaws are addressed. Allow me to explain…

Pictured: why most experiments don’t succeed

Problem #1: Methodological doubts

The first thing to notice is that Beyond Literacy is beholden to a particular academic position known as technological determinism. Popularized by a group of Toronto-based scholars in the middle of the last century, this is essentially the idea that, both historically and factually, technology is the driving force that shapes our psychological and social states, as opposed to the inverse view, that our social conditions shape our technologies. In particular, communications technologies (i.e., media) are held as the dominant forces conditioning human cognition. For example, Havelock (1963) argued that the philosophical, scientific, political, and artistic achievements of Classical-era Greece were directly caused by the invention of the Greek alphabet. Likewise, McLuhan’s (1964) infamous and widely misunderstood “the medium is the message” suggests that the media we use to communicate information are more important, influential, and meaningful than information itself. That is, it doesn’t matter what you read on the Internet at all, the only thing that truly affects you is the Internet itself. To the Toronto School, we can add the assorted futurists and digital utopians that argue for knowledge too big to know, singularities, transhumanism, and related projects.

More narrowly, Ridley focuses on written language as the core technology that shapes our minds in these profound ways. And in this he is echoing the so-called “literacy thesis” popularized by theorists like Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1926), Jack Goody (1963, 1977) and Walter Ong (1982). Briefly, this is the idea that there are distinct, incommensurable modes of thought that distinguish oral cultures from literate cultures. Pre-literate cultures think differently and, according to the aforementioned theorists, they lack things like logic, reason, metaphor, truth, and other cognitive categories that distinguish “literate” culture. It’s clear that accepting post-literacy as presented requires accepting these theses. Ridley’s basic argument is that written language has run its course and human progress requires moving to the next level of communication technology (technological determinism) and that, furthermore, that transition will create new categories of human thought (literacy thesis).

The only problem is that we have no good reason to accept either thesis as true. Technological determinism is a highly reductionist theory and it’s greatest proponents, Havelock and McLuhan, have been criticized heavily for cherry-picking evidence, oversimplifying historical events, and resting their theories on post hoc observations that preclude generalization. I admit that McLuhan made some important insights: technology does affect us in profound ways. But, he also spouted a lot of  impenetrable nonsense that gets passed off as profundity  (a common strategy among pop-academics…see also, Derrida, Žižek, and Butler). Trust me, there are far more lucid theorists exploring the impact of technology on human progress in a far more intellectually robust way. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s masterful The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) is a prime example. Likewise, the literacy thesis advanced by Goody and Ong has been consistently proven wrong. Believe it or not, “primitive” cultures can actually reason pretty well. Shoot, actual anthropological research is turning up evidence of things like innate geometrical reasoning, innate moral reasoning skills, and anthropologists find overwhelmingly more evidence in favor of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar then the Sapir-Whorf thesis.

But, I don’t want to get distracted. The basic idea is that the fundamental methodological assumptions made by the Beyond Literacy thought-experiment are incredibly contentious and do not necessarily represent mainstream academic thought on the history and development of language and literacy. Before the thought-experiment can really proceed, a defense of this methodology is probably in order. (Take it to the comments if you’d like.)

Who needs substance when you’ve got clever typography?
by danielweireesq on Flickr, CC BY-NC

Problem #2: That’s not literacy

For the sake of argument, let’s grant Ridley the literacy thesis and continue. A second problem arises when we stop to reflect on what, exactly, Ridley means by literacy. For example, he discusses reading in terms of “stories and ideas” [Chapter 2] and of literacy as “a tool for reflection and concentration” [Chapter 5]. Reading is described as “profound,’ “mysterious,” and “subversive.” Throughout “Beyond Literacy”, he writes exclusively of books and stories, and of deep-thought and wisdom. Honestly, after reading about post-literacy, you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that literacy is defined as “the ability to hold an extended conversation about Proust.”

The problem is that the ability to read and write is not the same thing as the ability to read books. The vast majority of what we read is remarkably mundane. Street signs, checkbooks, tax returns, cereal boxes…heck, if you’re familiar with  “sodium laurel sulfate” (and I know you are) then you have proof that reading is not always so highfalutin as Ridley suggests. I mean, UNESCO doesn’t promote literacy so that the people of Burkina Faso can finally find out what happens to Harry Potter. Literacy is much more basic than that. By implicitly defining literacy as the ability to read literary works, post-literacy is limited strictly to moving beyond literature, and that’s a much weaker position than “reading and writing are doomed.” Put another way, literacy is a foundational skill and book-reading is a specific application of that skill. Mistaking the latter for the former is an egregious oversight.

Problem #3: Language concerns

Let’s assume that we allow the thought-experiment to proceed. It still isn’t clear how post-literacy relates to language itself. In the simplest sense, language is a system for communicating thought or other cognitive states and a writing system is the symbolic representation of that language (through morphemes, phonemes, pictographs, or other means). Is post-literacy suggesting that when we move beyond literacy we will move beyond the need to symbolically represent thought? My guess is that Ridley would say this is exactly the idea: cognition will change in such a way that we will no longer need to represent thought through symbolic language. Okay, but we should think carefully about just how widespread symbolic language really and truly is. For example, the post-literate world will have to find a substitute for programming languages which, in order to be machine-readable, have to be written. You can’t code without writing because the second we start applying logic to manipulate objects (electrons, photons, magnetic particles, etc.), we need a symbolic representation of a language.  It may only be 1s and 0s, or ifs and thens, but it’s a written language all the same.  Of course, there may in fact be a way to transition information processing to something non-linguistic, and I’m not enough of a computer engineer to make that call. But, we also have the problem of semantic information and at a more fundamental level, post-literacy obviates the need for semantic information itself, which I don’t think is an acceptable outcome even for post-literate cheerleaders. What I’m trying to get at is that the post-literate world will necessarily be a post-information world as well, and that’s a hell of a consequence.

Problem #4: What to do with all those books?

What happens if we grant post-literacy everything it seems to entail and we actually enter the post-literate world? Well, if we agree with Ong and McLuhan, and if we can no longer read and write, and if our brains have progressed to some alternate mode of language processing, then it follows that the previous several thousand years of communication through written language will become incomprehensible and inaccessible. Our literature, science, philosophy, and other cultural productions will be to post-literate society what the paintings at Lascaux are to a literate society. And don’t think Ridley can respond with, “we’ll just translate our science and literature out of print and into the new, post-literate mode of communication.” Due to his methodological assumptions, Ridley is committed to the view that the post-literate brain will be completely unable to make sense of anything created by the literate brain (just as Ong argued for the incommensurability of the pre-literate and the literate brain). 

My point is that the post-literacy thought-experiment involves more than simply hypothesizing our ability to communicate in the future, it also requires that we consider what it means to turn away from literally every idea we’ve had for the past 5,000 years. We’re talking everything from philosophy to science to  engineering to religion…I mean, post-literacy is actually sacrilegious in at least two or three of the major world religions. Again, it’s not that these are insurmountable issues. Rather, the thought-experiment simply needs to address them in the first place. It shows a stunning lack of self-awareness to characterize the transition away from literacy as merely “a bit disruptive.”

“Yeah…uh…you’re on your own with this one.”
by umar nasir on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


Problem #5: “Tools? Really?”

Maybe the heart of the problem is a mere category mistake: literacy is not a “tool.” Ridley deems alphabets and reading and writing tools and, I agree, tools get replaced all the time by better tools. But it’s hard to see what literacy has in common with tools. I can see how reading and writing and alphabets may be skills, or abstractions, or quasi-logical systems…but tools? If alphabets and literacy are tools then I suppose numbers and mathematics are tools as well, so let’s get post-numerical while we’re getting post-literate. Or not. Honestly, Ridley is probably right that if literacy is a tool, then we can make a better tool. After all, it’s not like we still use ancient tools like wheels, ramps, and pulleys anymore, right?

The key problem here is one of consistent presentation. At times Ridley treats literacy as a tool and applies the tenets of technological determinism. At other times, he treats literacy as a skill or cognitive process to explain its importance. And throughout the text, he mixes and matches observations on printed books, ebooks, handwriting, orality, storytelling, and other language-related things. Wedging these all under the aegis of “literacy” leads Ridley to equivocation, which seriously undermines the thought-experiment. Hopefully future drafts will pay more attention to consistency.

Beyond “Beyond Literacy”

I could probably poke holes in Beyond Literacy all day, but I think I’ll take a rest. Please don’t think I am entirely dismissive of post-literacy; I’m really curious about the future of language. I’m just hesitant about accepting absolute statements about the future when their only evidence is vague, incoherent, or post hoc. Sure, I suppose that reading books could eventually be supplanted by something else entirely. I also suppose that we may yet find technologies that improve on print or that augment our interactions with theprinted word. But, I’m highly skeptical that we’ll get rid of reading and writing as a major form of communication. After all, despite the theories of McLuhan, Ong, Goody, our print culture hasn’t exactly snuffed out spoken language yet.

So, take a look at the Beyond Literacy thought-experiment and try to avoid knee-jerk reactions. I really do think that there is a great pedagogical value to thinking about post-literacy. And while I may find the thought-experiment itself intellectually sloppy and thoroughly unconvincing, I do think it’s important to think about the effects of technology on literacy. If you’d care to comment, I’m sure the Beyond Literacy group would love to read, hear, or telepathically digest your thoughts.


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