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Beyond Literacy: Exploring a Post-Literate Future (The Wednesday Keynote)


Michael Ridley

Michael Ridley

Michael Ridley, librarian and former CIO at the University of Guelph, Ontario, spoke about the welcomed demise of literacy (yes, it’s welcomed!).  He said reading and writing are doomed; literacy as we know it is over.

DIsplacement of Literacy

DIsplacement of Literacy

Welcome to the post-literature future.  We are all prisoners of literacy.

There are all kinds of literacies.  This talk focuses on visible language; reading and writing.  It is inevitable that will be replaced by something else.  This is advantageous, not some new dark age.  We are going forward, not back.  Ridley published an online e-book and conducted a thought experiment, teaching as he was writing and engaging in collaborative authorship and networked conversation.  The bibliography was set up on a Pinterest site.  Reactions from readers were interesting.

Why are we thinking about post-literacy? Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”  You have been shaped by literacy.  Socrates had this idea, calling literacy “the show of wisdom without the reality”.  It was the end of dialog between people and changed the way we think.  Only about 3% of languages are visible; it is therefore rare that literacy exists.  So why do we do this?  There is too much information.  We face this problem frequently.  The reaction is often to invent something that helps us move forward, which is why the alphabet was developed.  Our writing systems are hard to learn, difficult to use (they require a certain kind of environment), slow to process, prone to error, insufficiently powerful (even though we have some great writers), and addictive.

Candidates for post-literacy:

  • Bio-computing and neural prosthetics (adding computing tools),
  • Telepathy and “techlepathy”.  We are all telepathic and just don’t know how to do it.  Techlepathy is when people connect themselves cognitively to a network using one;s nervous system to be able to transmit information among one another.
  • Collective unconscious and consciousness.
  • Drugs and cosmetic neurology.  Possibilities of using interventions.
  • Machine intelligence–may be the real solution.  We are very close to computer systems that are much smarter than we are.  Machine intelligence is not alphabetic intelligence.
  • Post-humans.  It’s not about us at all.

All these possibilities have threats to them.  The transitions include disruption, suspicion and distrust, a sense of loss, unsophisticated use, early adopters, elitism and power, and the mainstream.  We will need to go through this transition.

The physiology of information is a rapidly moving field; new research comes out every week about how we think.  The brain has neurotransmitters,  biochemicals, proteins, connectivity, neurons, synapses.  That is information and what you know.  Everything you understand can be reduced to these substances.  What if we could create a drug that could grow an understanding in your mind?  For example, take a pill and learn French.  Where we get the pill could determine how we learn.  Telepathy involves that we connect ourselves pathologically.  Mindmelding by William Hirstein is a fascinating and relevant book.

How will we become post-literate?  Aliens?  The best thing we can do is fail, then try again (and fail better!).  So Beyond Literacy Radio was started by a graduate class to explore what other kinds of literacy would be like.  This has become a collaborative process with several other professional societies.  Reading and writing are doomed; we need something better.


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