Beyond Confrontation: An Editorial Experiment

Since I grumped about and reacted badly to the tone of Michael Ridley’s Introduction to Beyond Literacy, I started thinking: OK, hotshot, how would you do it better?

With that in mind, here’s a quick editorial experiment: Ridley’s introduction, modified to avoid inevitabilities and confrontation while encouraging conversation. Something like 98% of the text that follows is Ridley’s; a tiny little bit is mine.


Imagine a future in which reading and writing are doomed and literacy as we know it is over. Let’s call it the post-literacy future.

Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment about the demise of literacy and the rise of other capabilities, capacities or tools that would effectively and advantageously displace reading and writing. While the prospect of the end of literacy is disturbing for many, it need not be a decline into some new Dark Age but could rather the beginning of an era of advanced human capability and connection.

I’ll even argue that the post-literate world is to be welcomed not feared. Of course, getting there could be a bit disruptive.

Writing about the end of literacy is certainly ironic and probably slightly foolish. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll assert that literacy is doomed and this is the best way available to chart its decline and replacement.

Literacy or “visible language” is a profound capability. The ability to read and write is a transformative skill that fundamentally changes the way we think, act, and engage with each other. The power of reading and writing is undeniable. And yet there are challenges to the human condition for which literacy seemingly fails. Has literacy run its course? Has our allegiance to its capabilities blinded us to its failings?

This project explores something which I’ll assert to be inevitable but for which we have grave misgivings. The alphabet is simply a tool, and a relatively recent one in terms of human evolution. Humans excel in making tools. It only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.

And so this book will explore that possible inevitability: that literacy will be displaced or replaced by a capacity, capability or tool more powerful, valuable and useful. The premise for this possible future is that literacy is doomed.

Beyond Literacy is also an experiment in participation. The issues and ideas presented here are intended as the starting points for a larger and wider discussion. I hope these chapters will encourage you to engage further by commenting on specific posts, adding your own posts, or by publishing commentary on your own sites and linking back to Beyond Literacy. The objective is to nurture a distributed dialogue across many venues and in many formats.

Literacy is a capability we privilege above all others. It is a universal good. It is widely viewed as a prerequisite for success and personal development. By contrast, illiteracy is understood to be an impairment. While I will argue that literacy is doomed, and while I will try to make the case that what replaces literacy will be more powerful, like you, I harbour strong allegiances to literacy. I have been transported by poetry; I have been enriched by lucid and complex arguments; I have been entertained, touched, moved, and enraged by the writings of great people; I have shared my thoughts with friends and recorded ideas for my great grandchildren. I have reveled in reading and writing.

Given our experiences, it is difficult to escape the perspectives imposed on us by literacy. As Walter Ong notes, literacy is a “pre-emptive and imperialistic activity” since it displaces other ways of conceptualizing (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982). While we are children of literacy, we are also prisoners of literacy. Marshall McLuhan has observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”(Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). However, despite this, it is possible to conceive of a technology or a capacity that would replace literacy. “Post-literacy” is defined here as the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.

A Note on Terminology and Notation Systems

Obviously thoughts about post-literacy are purely speculative. This project is a thought experiment not an objective consideration of the facts. One can easily dismiss these speculations as mere science fiction; interesting but insubstantial and highly unlikely. Perhaps. The history of human communication suggests that literacy itself was unlikely. It is a fairly recent development and only in the past few hundred years has it become widespread (i.e. mass literacy). This is in stark contrast to spoken language which is innate and universal in humans.

As a librarian, proposing that literacy is doomed is a provocative and challenging assertion particularly given that libraries and librarianship are fundamentally grounded in the acts of reading and writing. However, visible language is simply a technology, albeit a tremendously powerful and successful one, and technologies come and go as their value waxes or wanes.

Why is this idea so compelling? The process of thinking about it, talking about it, and studying it with the students in the courses I have taught has reinforced the profound value of literacy. Contemplating the end of literacy has magnified its importance. It is a reaffirmation of the fundamental power of literacy even as we contemplate its demise.

Do I really believe literacy is doomed? Yes.

Do I think this is a cause for concern? Yes. And No.

Will I feel a sense of loss when it happens? Perhaps.

I, like you, am a child of literacy. I have experienced the enormous pleasure and personal advantage of being literate. But I have also seen the complexities of the world challenge our ability to respond. In The Ingenuity Gap (2000) Thomas Homer-Dixon speculates on whether our world has become too complex and fast-paced. How will we deal with the emerging problems? Where will the new ideas come from? From this perspective, is it possible that our literate selves are one of the barriers to new thinking and to critically important new ideas?

People are quick to defend literacy against any threat. It is a universal good. It is the key to success and personal growth. While all these things are true, our passion for our literate condition clouds our view of alternatives and new possibilities. Just as we can experience the magic of literacy, so can we imagine the possibility of another tool that would bring with it even greater transformation and personal power.

Of course, post-literacy is not simply a new gadget or an innovative piece of technology. Neither computers nor the Internet are examples of post-literacy. Displacing literacy is going to require a capability or capacity far more profound than these. What that entails and how that will happen are central to this project and the commentaries of those who choose to engage in the discussion.

Now here’s the thing: I didn’t really change that much. I transformed the Big Brother statements into a less-confrontational paragraph. I changed two or three words in the first regular paragraph, added three words at the start of the second, and changed two words in the third.

Otherwise, I added a qualifier whenever some form of “inevitable” was used–because, you know, once you’ve stated that something is inevitable, there’s very little room for discussion other than “I agree” or “I disagree.” The claim of inevitability is the end of discussion: To me, it’s generally a sign that the case for a position won’t stand on its own merits.

An interesting thing happened when I made these changes and read through the rest of the introduction. Namely, I noticed that Ridley’s hedging his bets. His definition of post-literacy is not at all that portrayed in the first two BIG STATEMENTS. Instead, it’s “the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.” [Emphasis added.]

That’s a very different thing. You could make the case that we’re already in a post-literate society if you use that definition: At least in terms of bandwidth used, TV and movies (including various web visual media) far outweigh reading and writing, if only because text transmits so efficiently.

If I’d read this modified introduction, I would have probably gone on to read the remaining chapters (which I have not attempted to revise nor reread). Would I have become a full-fledged participant in the discussion? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly wouldn’t have felt the need to vent about the project and its ACRL/OLA sponsorship.

Am I right to prefer this nonconfrontational, nonabsolutist, non-inevitable version? I’m not sure there is a right or wrong.

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