Are we postliterate?

Postliterate societies are still the stuff of science fiction. However, we are advancing towards one. These are societies where the skills of reading and writing are no longer required, or at least common. Where digital has become the norm.

Until very recently, everyone who had gone to school knew how to handwrite in a cursive script, no penlift, calligraphic. Then typographic-looking handwriting came along, and only a few could do a three-line calligraphic g with a double loop. They were regarded as magicians by the new generation. Then our thumbs and our fingers became the new pens. There are many today who feel more comfortable typing than writing.

We are making strides towards postliteralism. Here’s where we are:

  • Writing is optional. There is always a screen within reach. And there is always that notes app on the smartphone. And when we do write, we imitate digital communication: typographic script, low spelling standards with an emphasis on pronunciation respelling, laconism. We’ve gone paperless and invented e-signing.
  • Reading is becoming optional and avoidable. The New Yorker app can read back every article via Audm. Blinkist reduces non-fiction books to 15 minutes of ‘key lessons’ which may be listened to. Audible is booming.
  • We are all transliterate and we love it. It means that we have the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks. Since writing is still taught from a very early age, everyone is still literate in the strong sense. Yet, I suspect that it wouldn’t matter much to many of us if we suddenly lost the ability to use a writing instrument.

2 thoughts on “Are we postliterate?

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  1. However rarely we pick up a pen and leave a handwritten note, every being on this earth has to know how to write one in an emergency. Batteries run out, finance is needed to use devices or the data runs out. You can have your identity swiped and need to prove who you are otherwise. We live in a democratic society today. Are you asking for the return of slavery and serfdom, creating a lower class of illiterates, while written communication is restricted to the chosen few?


    1. You make an interesting point. Take electricity and it’s all gone. Our brave digital world is also very vulnerable. I’m not sure we’d have been able to develop a democratic society in history without pen and paper – for the simple fact that the probability of memory loss through destruction of information and knowledge is very high in a digital-only environment. And then we’d have to start anew, which precludes any kind of advance.

      On the other hand, postliterate does not mean illiterate. One thing I wanted to write more about in that blog are the two types of postliteracy: the dark and the bright side of it. The dark side is the one usually emphasized in dystopies and sci-fi literature and movies. It is one where slavery and serfdom, if not a reality, are always probable. The bright side, however, is one where we become comfortable with analog and digital, none at the expense of the other. This is also hypothetical, for we haven’t reached that – what we see on the ground is a retreat of the analog behind the victory march of digital. The World Literacy Foundation has some damning stats. But one can hope and do what they can to make that happen. Thanks again.


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