Trendspotter’s literacy prediction

“The end of the written word”, this is much food for thought. Imagine this terrible scenario: At first, keyboards would gradually disappear, because input into the talking computer would be much faster in oral form, but people still know how to read text from screen or paper because it’s faster (see S. Downes), and generally gives more control to the reader (see G. Siemens ) since it can be skipped and selected and thus favors the recipient (similarly as slide presentations favor the literacy-minded, see my #77). But slowly, these people would become old and become less because new texts become less and the measured ROI of learning to read would decrease. And in the end, only a priviledged class of scribes would be literate, just as the monks before Gutenberg.

Admittedly, there are many forces behind this trend.

  • Literacy is overrated in learning, and its view as a thing rather than a process impedes improvement by revisablity (see D. Brent);
  • successful managers prefer orality (see ESJ,
  • orality matches the trend for more informal, spontaneous information,
  • tacit knowledge (postive) seems to be closer to oral than to literal knowledge,
  • sequential thinking (negative) seems more associated with written monologues, while the holistic, right-brained, style seems to be oral,
  • reading is more laborious than listening, and so it possibly hinders insights and associations popping up out of easy hovering attention.

But the trendspotter may have missed contrarian trends. Literacy has changed with recent technology, and has adopted many affordances that were typically oral before, e. g. dialogue (email, chat), and above all, incrementality (e. g. blogs). In fact, literal forms have even overtaken oral forms here: the reach of the dialogue has extended spatially and intertemporally. And the various incremental stages of written notes (from very preliminary notes to oneself through thoroughly revised thoughts for distant audiences) were greatly facilitated by the new tools. If blogs are not enough evidence, just think of visually enhanced notes that never could be translated to purely oral talk, and how easily such charts can be rearranged with new stages of insight.

Another argument favoring textbased forms came last week via OLDaily: text-based roleplays in instructional games seem to better foster the imaginative capacity and active construction of knowledge than rendered virtual reality with avatars, see this article.

So, will orality displace literacy, or the other way around? Neither of both. They approach each other, and mingle and blend, with oral forms having their strengths in decision-heavy and (inter)action-heavy settings, while “the written word” remains important for cognition-heavy requirements. And hopefully this latter type will never become restricted to priviledged scribe monks again.

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