version submitted to CA Magazine

October 26, 1998

WHEN writing was invented, it provided people with the ability to transcend their own limited lives and pass on knowledge to generations yet unborn. The first literature, "The Epic of Gilgamish," concerns itself with the concept of death, and writing indeed confers a sort of immortality on the author. The skill of writing was difficult to acquire, and only a small portion of society needed or wanted it: the priestly, administrative, legal and religious classes, merchants and traders, and the odd poet. That was about it. Despite an increase in the accessibility of writing tools and skills, literacy however defined probably hovered around 20% of society until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The great push to universalize literacy, which in the Industrialized West has resulted in near 100% literacy, is now undergoing a curious erosion. Inner city schools, such as Oakland, California, report a frustrating 75% D and F average for black and Hispanic students. Though schools with high white and Asian enrollment report high average grade points, the grades of their black and Hispanic students are just as poor as in those schools where black and Hispanic are in the majority (1).

The first conclusion is that black and Hispanic students are so disenfranchised, so divorced from the dominant society, that they see no point whatever in participating in the educational process. This may be part of the story, but there may be more to it.

In the film "Star Wars," a comprehensive vision of a vast intergalactic culture presents highly intelligent robots, star ships, an intensely trained priest-warrior class, and trade and commerce of every kind. What it also shows, upon careful examination, is a society which is apparently illiterate. Princess Leia Organa does not write a letter to Obi-Wan Kenobi, she makes a short video recording and transports it via robot. Luke Skywalker is a frustrated water farmer, stuck on a backwater planet. Apparently, his education has been confined to robot maintenance, marksmanship and hair-raising aerobatics. In his uncle's home, there is no sign of literature or writing. Trade is done in hard cash, and credit if there is such a thing is at best a local affair. With the exception of cryptic identifying marks on military battleships, the film contains no writing of any kind.

The reason is not hard to find: literacy as we use it was developed for the transfer and preservation of knowledge. If some other means is developed, one more in line with the way humans ordinarily communicate, this might be what the future holds.

Let us suppose for a moment that you were prevented from reading or writing anything. That you instantly became functionally illiterate. What would happen? Not much, if you think about it. You could get all your news over the radio and television via speech and sight. Traffic lights are red, yellow and green and traffic signs are different shapes and colors. If the words "stop," or "yield" were removed, it wouldn't make too much difference. If you want to communicate with someone far away, just pick up the telephone. If you want to leave a message, the telephone answering machine will record it. You can pay your bills with cash, or with a credit card. You may identify yourself thoroughly with fingerprint, iris print, voice print and photograph. Signatures may be forged, but not these. If you need to add or subtract or multiply or divide, a pocket calculator does all the work. You do not need to learn long division any more than you need to learn to make fire with flint and steel or hunt through the veldt for food. If you want to preserve a thought, speak into a recording device. If you want to preserve an image, take a photograph. If you want to preserve both image and words, take a video. If you are bored, go to the movies or watch TV or listen to music or play video games, chess or cards.

Complex thought develops during expression. How often do we have no idea what we are arguing until it is actually coming out of our mouths? How often have you watched your thought develop as you work it out on paper or, latterly, monitor? The direction and content of Western thought has been guided and formed by the tools we've used to express ourselves. By extension, electronic media are necessarily going to change the course of thought. I believe this is already happening in graphic design and pop culture. I have no idea what many billboards are saying about their product, and with some I don't even know what product they are advertising. This is neither good nor bad, it just is.

We have proven to be an extremely successful species. Evolution happens because something first works, and then everything else shuffles into alignment. I expect there will be a long enough period of co-existence of literate and illiterate for the shakedown to reveal the best survival strategy.

When in the course of evolution it is time to bridge the technologies, or to make adaptations in an evolutionary sense, the adaptive strategy is always flexibility. The animals that can do both what has been and what is coming are most likely to survive. It is true that some technologies are all but forgotten, and usually this is because better ways have been found to do the same things, or because what was done in the first place is now no longer needed. Literacy is not necessarily the best way to do anything: it's just a tool that we're using right now until something better comes along. The usefulness of reading and writing won't utterly disappear, but the goal of universal literacy is clearly a thing of the past, and is becoming more circumscribed by the day. What is already happening is that a substantial segment of society cannot be addressed by literate means, and that we can either adapt to this or blind ourselves to what may (or may not) be a bridge to an unimaginable but inevitable future. If you restrict yourself to the literate, you are at the very least cutting yourself out of some important lines of communication.

Prediction is notoriously wrong because we are limited by what we know. What usually happens is that the real future the one that actually happens contains both possibility and impossibility that will only seem inevitable after it's already here.

Just like people, every technology has its birth, infancy, vibrant youth, maturity, decline, doddering old age and death. Some hold long leases, others, mayfly-like, come and go in the twinkling of an eye. Letterpress printing's last hundred years reached a zenith of perfection. The finest sailing ships were built after the nasty, grimy steamer was regularly plying the seas and frightening the fish. The most perfect mechanical watch postdates the plain, cheap, ultra-accurate electronic digital. In each case. the thing that makes a technology perfect is the thing that replaces it. But in the swan's song of a technology is more beauty than was ever in its vigorous growth and maturity. The giveaway for impending obsolescence is that the technology finally works right, it's finally almost perfect. That's the sign that it's actually dying. The clipper ship was made possible by steam power and industrial progress; the mechanical watch reached perfection through computer & laser technology that made an accurate watch so cheap that a mechanical watch became no more than jewelry, with accurate time-telling not much more than a bragging point.

Photography, sound recording, movies, radio, telephones, television, electronic media of all kinds, and latterly the Internet with its chat rooms, enforcement of typing skills and near- or potential replacement of reference books, printed journals, newspapers, magazines and libraries are literacy's children and heirs.

The Industrial Revolution has been building a world that no longer needs writing or books. Sheet music was a commonplace until recorded music became even more commonplace. I knew a fellow in the 1960s whose job it was to reverse-compose rock 'n' roll fulfilling some sort of anachronistic copyright requirement, he wrote the lyrics and music by listening to the recording. Who learns jazz and rock by studying sheet music? A substantial percentage of professional musicians can't read music and don't care to learn, because they don't need to, and besides the kind of music they're composing and performing is not particularly susceptible to musical notation.

Writing is not frozen speech and musical notation is not frozen music. These are stop-gap measures that were invented because the tape recorder wasn't invented first.

People are not getting dumber. Literate snobbery would like you to "Kill your television," but administrators of standardized intelligence tests can find only one explanation for the across-the-board increase in intelligence test scores: the five to seven hours a day young people spend with the television set. (2) The rapidly shifting quick scene changes, the necessity of holding three seven-minute segments of plot interspersed with many super quick little stories and appeals, the frenetic demands made on the viewer all add up to getting smarter in an equally frantic world that demands smartness as a survival strategy. This is a post-literate medium if ever there was one, and it makes your brain different, and it's not bad.

The middle class is, has always been, and may continue to be the literate class. It is the class of traders, merchants and artisans, all of whom need to communicate over time and distance. Until writing was invented, this communication was uncertain, difficult and transient. During the Industrial Revolution, the needs and desires of the middle class expanded to include both high and low, until all Industrial Citizens took it for granted that "Reading is Fundamental."

As members of the middle class, graphic designers appear to share this notion, but a careful look will reveal that while we render lip-service to literacy, an increasing percentage of our activity is focused on non-literate communication. Signs, symbols, emblems, color, shape, motion, sound and image are far more important tools than alphabetized words themselves.

A look around will show that the Industrial Revolution is emphatically over, that there are no "pre-industrial" or "emerging" peoples or nations, and that you're either already a member of the rapidly-shrinking middle class or your chances of joining it are shrinking even more rapidly. And if you're not a member of the middle class, then ipso facto presto chango, you don't need reading and writing anymore, so why kid yourself.

Graphic designers consciously or otherwise are increasingly catering to pre-literate, a-literate, sub-literate or illiterate consumers. You do not, after all, have to be well educated in order to spend money, and graphic designers most certainly go where the money is. It's our job to sell, not to educate or judge.

Perhaps the admittedly marginalized members of society are, in a sense, more in the vanguard than the baggage train. Why learn to read and write and figure if you don't actually need any of these skills in your day-to-day life? Perhaps we are moving through literacy into a world in which literacy is no longer important or useful. Like an old tractor abandoned in the fields, perhaps literacy is a tool which we don't need any longer. So, we just walk away, and leave it to rust.

(1) "A Roundtable Discussion: Race and Social Class in the Berkeley Schools 25 Years after Integration," The Berkeley Insider, June, 1993, page 16. (2) For a cross-referenced starting point of this complex issue, see "Flynn's Effect," Marguerite Holloway, Scientific American, January 1999, as well as the special 1998 Intelligence issue of Scientific American.