July 02, 2014

Horse 1706 - Post-Literacy

Yesterday morning on 702 ABC Sydney, Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville (yes that is his official title), was speaking to Deborah Knight about keeping diaries and whether or not people keep as many as they used to. The conclusion generally was that people do not and this sort of accelerated in a digital age.
It seems that in an ever increasing age of social media, where people have this almost insatiable desire to immediately blurt anything out that they can think of and immediately at this very instant, that the very thought of slowing down and going through the physical act of pen to paper seems daunting for people.

Now admittedly, I know that I have written about this before and run the plough through this same paddock of ideas but for the life of me, I can not find that particular post in more than 1700 of them - please forgive me if I've been here before and I bore you.
As I write this post, I can immediately think of at least a dozen blogs of people which are no longer kept. In that period immediately after Eternal September (today being Wednesday the 7609th of September 1993), the internet was invaded by many new users who took to writing home pages and the like. Even this blog's first post on Geocities was back in 1997 and that itself has died a digital death in the memory holes of time.
The point being that long before the days of Youtube, audio and video streaming, well before the days of podcasts and even before the use of MP3 files, text ruled the internet in the same way that Gutenberg's printing press brought literacy to the masses. Before then, if you wanted to publish anything, you really needed paper and a ready market.
Especially since 2007 with the rise of Youtube, the humble blog with its seemingly boring text format has died a rather sorry sort of death. More alarmingly though, is that even established print news media are also dying the death of a thousand paperless cuts. Video might not have killed the radio star but it has done a heck of a job in shoving knives into the text warrior.

Perhaps I remember a conversation that I once had about the post-literate world and the questions which arose from that. Those questions were being asked even before Eternal September even began:

Literacy: the ability to read and interpret the written word. What is post-literacy? It is the condition of semi-literacy, where most people can read and write to some extent, but where the literate sensibility no longer occupies a central position in culture, society, and politics. Post-literacy occurs when the ability to comprehend the written word decays.
If post-literacy is now the ground of society questions arise: what happens to the reader, the writer, and the book in post-literary environment? What happens to thinking, resistance, and dissent when the ground becomes wordless?
- Bruce Powe, The Solitary Outlaw (1987).

I've often lamented about falling rates of functional literacy even among so-called professionals in industries such as the legal, journalistic and literary disciplines. Again I pick on newspapers here (because their work is more obvious) but with falling profit margins and the fact that sub-editors and post-production editors have often been fired from news rooms, it's actually become quite easy to find errors in publications like the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph; where once ABC's Media Watch would find sport in attacking the Illawarra Mercury or the Adelaide Advertiser for making spelling errors, that job is now so easy, that the fun has been lost.
The question that Mr Powe posed in his 1987 work of "what happens to the reader, the writer, and the book in post-literary environment?" is now quite answerable; we are living in those days.

What happens to the reader, the writer and the book?
The book becomes harder to purchase as the demand dries up and the number of outlets from which you can buy real physical dead tree declines. Of course you could argue that people could just as easily read things on an e-reader or other such device but the publishing networks which used to exist, which also included the infrastructure such as type-setting and sub-editing also declined and although one can publish something with this mechanism, the errors in publication which are found in newspapers and the like, sure must start creeping in here as well.
A writer could I suppose make use of the fact that without massive overheads and without publishing houses acting as very large gatekeepers on the publishing industry, that this opens the market considerably. I question though, that without those chains of distribution and marketing, how easy it is for someone trying to break into the writing business to ever make their voice heard amongst the cacophony*.
The reader is someone who really suffers in a post-literate world. Once upon a time, the big publishing houses would in effect do a lot of clearing work for you; filtering out the dross and drivel. In a world of a thousands voices yelling all at once, how do you ever find the next truly great writer? Personally, I've found myself mining classics which pre-date 1900. Classic Russian literature in particular would probably never even be written today; books like Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov are both so immensely complex that a writer probably wouldn't even bother to produce them; so what's the poor reader to do? The answer to that I suppose is buy box sets of DVDs like Game of Thrones or something (which I confess I have no desire to see).

What happens to thinking, resistance, and dissent? Thinking seems to have withered on the vine; serious resistance is infirm and lame and dissent is actively being passed off by sections of the media who wish to maintain their own profit margins, whilst their islands are being eaten away by the sea of illiteracy.
It is very true that the former literary sensibilities which once existed,  no longer occupy a central position in culture, society, and politics, and as such politics themselves have been reduced to a few sound bites and pointless slogans. Would Churchill even have been electable today, much less been able to last in modern government? Somehow I don't think so.

Richard Neville's lament that people don't keep diaries any more, is I think only a small facet of the society which we've either deliberately designed for ourselves or which has spontaneously arranged itself as a result of having instant communication devices. In an era when more information is available at the press of few buttons which was utterly inconceivable even a generation ago, we can say more but we choose to stop and think less.

*This is also where I make my shameless plug for my book, go on, buy it: 

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