miteypen

The End of Reading and Writing?

In Reading, Time, Writing on March 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Michael Ridley, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Librarian at the University of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario, Canada) believes that literacy will eventually go the way of the oral tradition.  For the past three years he has taught a course called “Beyond Literacy: Are Reading and Writing Doomed?” in which he tries to get his students to imagine a world in which most of our communication takes place without the use of the tools of reading and writing. It will take a while for the transformation to take place, just like it took a long time for the oral tradition to lose its importance as a tool of communication.  Some would argue that the process has already begun.

On his web site, Post Literacy, Ridley writes:

Just as the powerful capabilities of literacy effectively displaced primary orality, so too is it not only likely but inevitable (?!) that literacy will be displaced by a more powerful tool, capability or capacity.

“Post Literacy” is the phrase used to capture the possibility of rich human communication that exceeds (and hence replaces) visible language (writing and reading) as the dominant means of the understanding and exchange of ideas.

Post Literacy, as explored here, is not a decline from literacy into some new dark age but rather the beginning of a transformational capacity as yet unimagined.

And, yes, the irony of having to use visible language to explore all this is not lost on me!

It’s not entirely clear what the new tools of communication will be. In his slide presentation, Ridley speculates about things like telepathy and genetic memory. We’re obviously not talking about changes that will occur in our lifetimes. But I can see signs of post-literacy even in my own life–and I’m a writer and avid reader. I can’t imagine doing without the printed word. And yet I have seen a subtle shift in my dependence on the written word. Writing posts for my blogs is an ephemeral activity: the words are “out there” somewhere on the Internet, but if the host I use shuts down, my words are lost forever. (Except that I’ve been having them sent to me–by using Feed My Inbox–and saving them in an email folder. Someday I will get around to saving them on a CD, but who’s to say that CDs will continue to be readable by  future technologies?) Even in my journal writing: I used to write my journals exclusively by hand, now I rarely do. They used to be on floppy disks but now I no longer use those and just write directly on my computer. If my computer crashes or I switch to a new one, I can easily lose what I’ve written. And yet I find that it doesn’t matter to me like it used to that I save every word that rolls off my fingers.

I find that what I am drawn to these days is what happens in interactions between individuals. The words we speak carry as much, if not more, weight that those we read or write.  I may write a brilliant essay (I wish), but if what I write about isn’t a part of me that lies outside the pages of my text, what does it really matter? Perhaps a post-literate society will be based more on human  interactions and less on words that are stored somewhere in libraries and computer files. There may be something to be said for not hoarding our words and instead flinging them to the skies.

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