Literacy for a new world

From early times, humans have transmitted their identity through storytelling and song. Intellectuals with good memories became the repositories of their group’s most important knowledge and decision making tools. Culture was shared through proverbs, epic poetry and stylized culture heroes. Eventually, a few oral cultures developed a visible form of language, that is to say, writing. The change from oral culture to literate was revolutionary. Walter Ong, cultural historian and oral language scholar, suggested that written language was the necessary precondition for the growth of science, democracy and individualism.

Early on, writing belonged only to rulers, clerics, and scribes. This extraordinary power was greater than memory for storing, sharing and archiving information. By the time of Cicero, The Roman Empire used writing technology to send precise, detailed messages over long distances. Businessmen and scientists could communicate with each other, but the general public still depended on criers for their news.

With the advent of printing presses, books became widely available for the first time in the 1400’s and that’s when literacy really spread. Today 96% of the world can read street signs, make grocery lists, and do a great deal more than write their names, even send text messages.

Like the everyday Romans who received their news from criers who could read for them, some of us are just dipping our toes into a computer literate world. Today’s forward-thinking computer elite are already envisioning a world some of us can barely comprehend.

Adam Wiggins, creator of Heroku (a cloud app) considers teaching programming to end users (that’s most of us) to be the new literacy. He foresees a world in which individuals write their own scripts for household devices enabling complete freedom to adjust the thermostat, control their children’s access to media, feed their pets via automated food dispensers and much more. “If we can find a way to bring that ability to a wide audience, it could have an impact comparable to the invention of the printing press. We increasingly live in a computer-embroidered reality, and the ability to manipulate that reality is empowering.”

Bonnie Nardi, an anthropologist, studies the social implications of digital technologies. She is a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She identifies “information ecologies” as systems of people, practices, technologies and values in a local environment that is not exactly physical. In her book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, Nardi applies ethnographic tools to chart the new territory of the multi-player game community populated by World of Warcraft’s 12 million subscribers.

The documentation of human progress has moved from songs to tablets to books and now to virtual reality. Will reading itself soon become an artifact of simpler times? Maybe, but not yet. Learning to read is the gateway to full participation in society. For a while, at least, complete computer literacy is still limited to people who can read and write. But, a generation from now? That’s an intriguing a question to ponder, as is, imagining life in a world before writing.

 The Reading Solution column is written monthly by CRA Board Member Rorie Measure to increase public awareness of issues related to literacy.