This week, as a result of a discussion in the library profession initiated by Michael Ridley, CIO of the University of Guelph, I introduced my seminar class to the idea of a post-literate society. Even though these students are bright, well-educated senior undergrads the idea of post-literacy was too foreign for them to grasp it comfortably. So instead of discussing how a society might become post-literate and what that would be like, I spent the rest of the session helping them to imagine and to unpack what post-literacy meant. Not the literal words, of course, which are obvious enough. Rather we tried to figure out what information was if not collected data systematically organized through the use of a written language. It turned out, I believe, to be a fruitful exercise, because teasing out our fundamental assumptions gave us an opportunity to really explore the nature of the relationship between information tools and modes of human thought.
To do this, I first asked them to imagine the entire run of the human species in all its manifestations from our remote paleoanthropological origins to whatever those mysterious and inevitable ends of our species might be. Picture it if you will, as one vast line segment, a cutout from the even more mind-liquifyingly long universal time line. From there we visualized the part of the segment covering that fraction of time when we humans could communicate complex ideas using speech. It is surprisingly short compared to the length of time “Homo” has been around. Then, an even shorter segment is devoted to iconographic and alphabetic systems of writing. Then smaller, scribal culture, smaller still printing, tiny electric printing and finally the nearly imperceptible pinprick of desktop publishing and e-paper.
The purpose of this Saganesque exercise, as you can imagine, was to point out that across any two points on the human fossil and historical records, people manipulated information in sometimes subtly, sometimes grossly differing ways. Likewise, it is pretty safe to say that pre-human speech era thought differed from speech-capable human thought and that pre-graphical human thought differed from graphic-capable human thought. Yet, both pre and post kinds of thought were still human thoughts. We can thus infer that there is nothing inherently more human about the way we process information today, nor about the way we think than at any other point in the history of our species. How we do so is just an incident of where we sit on that vasty line segment. Whatever method of information manipulation that provides the best competitive advantage is what we use, and human thought patterns adapt accordingly to make most optimal use of that technology. Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy addresses this strange and interesting topic at length. In this way, my class came to distinguish post-literate adaptation from the dreaded anti-intellectual neo-barbarism.
So why even talk about post-literacy and post-literate societies if the process is adaptively self-correcting? One wonderful reason is simply to provoke the imagination. Another is that maladaptive change is always possible. A third and perhaps more immediately practical reason is of particular interest to my fellow librarians. This reason is that it helps contrast a keystone policy of the library profession, the promotion of universal literacy, with what I would argue is an even more critical policy. This policy is the elevation of curiosity as the most cardinal of all human virtues, followed closely and augmented by the ability to reason critically.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a librarian. I have a deep fondness for books, and love people who read. Yet, the avid readers I know tend to be so because they are people of great curiosity, who like to think critically about what they read. I consider readers a subset of a larger population, curious-critical folk. I argue that an educational system build on forcing people to read will not make them curious. Rather, by constantly encouraging them to be curious we may well compel them, through self-direction to pick up a book. Or whatever comes after the book, and to want to make sense of that book. To argue that reading alone is a doorway to egalitarian empowerment, or to dwell on how the internet might be making us “stupid”, is to privilege in an unhelpful and a priori way, one technology and one way of thinking over all competitors. Adaptation to environment will determine which technologies and which ways of thinking propagate. No myth of progress is implied, just pure adaptation with the potential for maladaptation. Yet there can be no reason to tether the library profession to any one technology, any one building, any one way of thinking, because no technology will be best suited for all existential conditions.
So instead of expending precious time and energy arguing the merits of books vs ebooks, text vs audio, audio vs video vs speculative future alternatives, should we not redirect that energy towards re-imagining our schools? Instead of fact-implanting factories, they should be places where curiosity is privileged above all else. The goal of education should be to learn the skills necessary to teach yourself what you need to know, wherever life should lead.
Considering post-literacy is not an act of future-lust, but an opportunity to reconsider our values and priorities in the here and now. If we continue failing to sufficiently encourage innate human curiosity and to force unnatural educational conformity, then it won’t matter what technology we choose to manipulate our information, we will become maladapted to any and every potential environment. Changing technology will never render librarians obsolete. We will only be doomed as a profession when no one has any questions left that they want to answer. Let us make sure that does not happen for a very long time.