Postliterate America

A few science fiction novels explore the concept of a postliterate society. In a postliterate society, reading and writing have been predominantly or entirely replaced by multimedia. Could the United States be transitioning into a postliterate society? The question may have been absurd to ask just a few years ago but I think there is reason today to give the question serious consideration:

I’ll make this short: The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion.

We’re taking stock of the internet right now, with writers who cover the digital world cataloging some of the most consequential currents shaping it. If you probe those currents and look ahead to the coming year online, one truth becomes clear. The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.

Writing has been the predominant method of recording information since, at least, the fourth millennium BC when cuneiform first emerged (but for all we know there could have been an even older writing system that hasn’t been discovered yet). This shouldn’t surprise anybody. Writing systems have many advantages but one of their biggest advantages is versatility. You can scratch written information into a wet piece of clay, chisel it into stone, mark it on a piece of paper with ink, or record it to a hard drive. Whether you have access to no technology, modern technology, or anything in between, you can write information.

The biggest limitation of alternative forms of recording information such as pictures, audio, and video has been the cost of creating and consuming them. Only in the last century have photo cameras, audio recorders, video cameras, and televisions become widely available. And only only in very recent times have computers powerful enough and software advanced enough to enable individuals to easily create and consume media become widely available. Thanks to those advancements we live in a society where postliteracy is a possibility.

For the cost of even a low spec smartphone any individual can create a video and upload it to YouTube. For a little more money any individual can acquire a computer powerful enough for them to do based video editing. As with computing power, video editing software continues to become cheaper. It also continues to become easier to use and more featureful, which is why so many people are able to harness the power of artificial intelligence to make fake porn videos.

This widespread availability of media creation and consumption technology has already had a tremendous impact. You can find instructional videos online for almost anything you could want to do. Do you want to fix a running toilet? A quick YouTube search will show you tons of videos walking you through how to fix one. Do you want to learn proper squatting form? Once again, a quick YouTube search will result in tons of videos of professional and amateur weight lifters explaining and showing how to properly squat. But the explosion of media hasn’t stopped at instructional videos.

Most political discussion online seem to involve memes, images with a bit of text bolted on. At one time creating and viewing even the simplest of memes was no simple feat. Today there are free websites that allow you to upload a picture and enter some text and it will spit out and even host your meme. In a few seconds you can create and then share your meme with the world without investing anything more than your time.

I’m not saying the United States is a postliterate society at this point but I believe the foundation necessary for such a transition exists and there is evidence to suggest that such a shift could be taking place. Think back to math class when you asked your teacher why you had to learn multiplication tables when you had a calculator that could multiply for you. Your teacher likely said that you wouldn’t always have a calculator with you. Today anybody with a smartphone in their pocket also has a calculator. Soon the same question that has been so often asked about multiplication tables could be often asked about reading and writing. It’s an interesting thing to ponder.