Just as a culture’s committment to literacy has made it nearly impossible for people to live their lives outside the written word, so has our age’s commitment to digital media driven by portable and wearable computing made it almost impossible for us to live a life unmediated by these (no longer) new technologies. As the medieval historian Michael Clanchy once pointed out, literacy impacted the medieval West to such a degree that even peasants, the last bastions of orality, couldn’t do without letters. The pandemic has brought before our eyes, and in the space of only several months, the remarkable phenomenon of a technology’s radical takeover of social life. Access to Internet and the ownership of a connected portable device are becoming as fundamental to human life as literacy was to become towards the end of the Middle Ages. Lately, I’ve been adding myself the question, how would someone without a laptop or a smartphone be able to do this or that, ordering food at a restaurant or paying their bills and taxes, things which had once been less mediated by technology.
To be completely illiterate today is to be excluded from most of modern life. We sometimes refer to those who don’t master the basics of internet and digital media as illiterate. Perhaps it is worth contemplating the implications of letting our lives be mediated by yet another layer of technology. The conquest of human life by then written word in the modern age has had the consequence of creating the myth of humanity as narrative, that is as written text. Who knows what the consequences of the digital takeover will be for our self-mythologising.