Welcome to Postliterate America

In my opinion the United States shows all the signs of a society beginning a descent into postliteracy. One of the biggest signs is the rapidly declining lack of interest in recreational reading:

The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent.

That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by these results. The idea behind a postliterate society is that multimedia technology has advanced to the point where the ability to read and write is unnecessary. In our age of cheap data storage, data transmission, and devices capable of rendering high-definition sound and video, many of which fit in a pocket, we are less reliant on written information than we once were. Moreover, voice dictation is advancing rapidly. When I first tried voice dictation on a computer I wrote it off as useless because at the time it was. Today my phone’s voice dictation is actually pretty decent. What’s probably more amazing than the improvement of voice dictation software is the fact that it’s not nearly as important as it once was because I can just send the audio clip itself to somebody.

Will literacy go the way of shorthand and cursive? It very well could. The technology is already at a point where literacy isn’t as important as it once was. In a few more years it will probably advance to the point where literacy is almost an entirely unnecessary skill. Once that happens it may take only one or two generations until literacy is a skill held exclusive by a handful of individuals who have an interest in archaic knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Welcome to Postliterate America”

    1. Everybody keels over dead due to severe Candy Crush and Facebook withdrawal symptoms.

  1. Folks with college degrees – even in the humanities – already are ignorant of literature. (Who wants to read stuff by dead white men?)

    The example I’ve seen tossed around, people know a novel, *Things Fall Apart* by a Nigerian author, but have never read “The Second Coming” a poem by Yeats where that line originates.

    It goes on from there. Starting with a general ignorance of the Bible, even though references to that are all through Western Literature.

    Then there is history (ignorance. rinse. repeat.) etc.

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