I finished reading Olympos, by Dan Simmons, just last night. I won’t even try to explain the plot lines — it’s wicked complicated, involving the Fall of Troy at least 2500 years in the future, a “race” of robots named after Hans Moravec, and the next stage of human evolution. Anyway, one of those post-humans comments at one point that all of the “posts” are post-literate. Again, I’m not going to try to explain why that came up. But it got me thinking, what would that mean, really, to be post-literate?
Librarians like to argue that electronic texts will never replace print, because new technologies never really replace old technologies; instead new & old technologies exist side-by-side. That’s true enough, except that given enough time, some technologies do get almost completely displaced. Sure, horses are still used for transportation, but only in a very limited way. Police use them in environments where motor vehicles are problematic for one reason or another, & they’re used for recreational riding. Not much else, let’s be honest. Parchment is still used for writing, but really only for torahs and art books. Clay tablets aren’t used at all any more. When was the last time you used a feather pen and inkpot? Played an 8-track cassette? Shot a crossbow? Smoked meat to preserve it? Do you keep your food cold in a warehouse using blocks of ice and hay? I would think not. Shall I go on?
In short, given enough time, old technologies are mostly replaced by new technologies, and the old tech finds itself relegated to very specialist uses (where the new tech is inappropriate for whatever reason) or recreational uses (where there is a community that just enjoys the old tech).
So, the printed word. Will it be replaced by the electronic word? I’m already on the record as hoping so. I won’t get into that again here, though there’s more to say on the topic. But look, if I could, for example, say, “Tank, I need a pilot program for a military M-109 helicopter,” and 5 seconds later know how to fly an M-109 helicopter, I’d be asking where I could sign up. I wrote before that I want my research materials electronically, and perhaps this would be another case like that: maybe instant downloading of material would be better in that context. For pleasure reading, I’d probably still want to actually read. But there you are: a recreational use of a future-obsolete technology.
So what would it mean to be post-literate? Actually, thinking about it, it only makes sense to ask that question about a society, not about an individual. A society may be pre-literate, meaning that writing hasn’t been invented. But an individual can’t be pre-literate; an individual is illiterate. So if a society is post-literate, what does that mean? Not that writing has been un-invented, obviously. That people no longer read? I don’t like that as a definition. I don’t know any stats, but what percentage of Americans read for recreation? We’re probably already well on our way to being a post-literate society if that’s the way we define it. I prefer the definition that a post-literate society is one in which people have moved beyond reading, that there are other means for getting information.
I suppose that people already get information via other means: TV, radio, etc. But that’s not what I mean. I mean something with greater “bandwidth,” so to speak, than print; TV’s bandwidth is sure a hell of a lot less than print. I watch the TV news over breakfast most days & it’s amazing to me how little news is actually conveyed sometimes.
And so I’m back to The Matrix & direct downloads to the brain. Kevin Warwick is experimenting with implants in both himself & his wife, to see if physical feelings & emotions can be exchanged. How long before that tech is operational, do you suppose? There’s research ongoing to allow people to drive computer interfaces just by thinking about it. How long before that’s commercially available? How long before we’ll be downloading pilot programs for military M-109 helicopters direct to the brain? Now that’s post-literate.