The Future of Reading

Literacy is undoubtedly one of Man’s most important achievements. Being not only able to record information, but to understand information recorded by someone thousands of miles away has had a dramatic impact on human development. It has allowed the spread of technology and the improvement of life for millions of people in a way that simply could not have been conceived if it had been absent. In fact, many societies regard reading and writing as so important that they’re the first skills that members of those societies master when they’re old enough to do so.

This last point underscores something that it very important. As pervasive as literacy is in many societies, it is not an ability that we are born with, in the way that we are born with an ability to hear words, recognise faces and learn languages. We have to labour over primers and textbooks for several years before we become fluent in reading. And even with the widespread acknowledgment of how important it is to be able to read, there are some people for whom reading will never really come naturally to. Such people will always prefer to watch a story on TV rather than read a book about the same story. However, because of the pervasiveness of the written word – because it is integrated into modern society on labels, over motorways, in positions of employment – everyone who can read, whether they are reluctant or enthusiastic about it, gets to exercise their reading skills on a fairly regular basis.

So for now, nobody contests how important literacy is. But is it a given that this will always be the case? Writing as a form of recording information has remained dominant for so long because up till now, there simply has been no other challenge to its portability (you can read a book anywhere), efficiency (it’s easier to write a letter to say how you feel than to record a speech saying the same) and durability (nobody worries about damaging printed matter by dropping it on the floor). But things are changing; thinner, more flexible mobile devices that allow us to watch video on the go are constantly being developed and improved, the same mobile devices make it easier to record and transmit videos of ourselves, and it’s very possible that as time goes on, they will become more rugged.

And where will this all lead to? Well, think of a world where, instead of newspapers, you have a flexible screen with a newscaster reading out the news. Instead of books, you have video dramatisations of stories played out to people on their mobile devices. In other words, video and audio – which are much more natural for humans to consume – will drive out those squiggly symbols from many areas of everyday life. And the more this happens, the less incentive there will be to read.

Having said, this, even if technology became so advanced, reading still has many things going for it. It’s a convenient way to consume information in ways watching video will never be – for example, it’s easier to skim the pages of a book to find what you are looking for than it is to fast-forward and rewind a video to get to a particular scene. Video is not searchable in the way that text is, so it’s a very imprecise medium for storing data. Most important of all, reading is deeply woven into many traditions in many societies – and traditions, no matter how illogical they may be, take a long time to die. So I’m not forecasting that reading will die out altogether. But I can see a time when lighter, more entertaining information will be delivered mostly through video, simply because for many people, it’s a more enjoyable, effortless and vivid way to consume that kind of information, and it brings that information to life in a way that a book simply cannot.

And it’s possible that neither writing nor video is not the final destination in the journey to develop an efficient, engaging way to record and consume information. Maybe there will be stories that people experience by being present in the stories themselves. But it won’t matter, because in the end, all these are just a means to an end – enabling the spread of information that has made humans so successful on Earth.

13 thoughts on “The Future of Reading” by Tola Odejayi (@TolaO)

  1. It is scary to contemplate the loss of writing or reading. These motion picture/ video thingy reduces a lot of things. TV brings events down to bits and pieces and serves it up. Much is lost without the simple art of telling or narrating. This is the danger in showing and less of telling.

    1. Nothing to be scared of, @kaycee. If watching videos helps people understand your story better than reading it, is that not a good thing?

  2. I think people probably read and wrote more in the past because they didn’t have other means.

    That said, I have always wondered what’s going to happen 50 years from now. Are we going to have people who can make a correct sentence without the help of computers and all. Will people still solve simple maths equations without using a computer. Maybe it’s not just about reading and reading. Maybe people are getting ‘dumber’.

    Nice article.

    1. I agree, @jaywriter. If video recording and playback had been available at the dawn of civilisation, I doubt if people would have been motivated to invent writing, or even if it had been invented, I doubt that many people would want to learn how to read/write.

  3. Let me also point out an argument at the first edition of Celebrity Read Africa in August 2010 or so.

    It seems people ‘read’ and ‘write’ more nowadays. This is because I consider reading a facebook update as reading. I also consider writing a facebook update as writing.

  4. Good point all round. but I believe words will evolve, not into abstract terms, but how we perceive it to be. New means = new ways of passing information. Written or visually documented, either ways, as long as words still circulate, I will stay happy.

    1. Written or visually documented, either ways, as long as words still circulate, I will stay happy.

      Well said, @wordsfromuyi.

  5. Reading and writing may be the foundation that birthed the more efficient ways of passing information. A picture they say is worth a thousand words…hence the growing popularity of the media…
    But I dnt think reading/writing wl ever be eliminated…afterall a building can’t stand without its foundation. To effectively communicate in images and sounds, u hv to have the commensurate words somewer in ur mind…

    1. @topazo, As @wordsfromuyi has mentioned, words are distinct from the means of capturing or transmitting them. Even illiterate people can grasp the concept of words without needing to know how to read and write. So I don’t know that you need reading/writing to be around for words to be in your head.

  6. The art of writing itself is not constant. It’s also adapting to the moving trends which is a good sign that reading can never be expunged. And again videos doesn’t allow much room for imagination. That is one advantage books have over it. Humans will always like to imagine things and it is left for the writers to cash in on it. I’m glad they’re already doing that. History has shown that no matter how far and fast a trend moves, it will surely return to the basics. All that is needed is just a little tweak. Litreature has a bright future…

    Nice train of thought Tola.

  7. Quite thought provoking. I doubt reading and writing will ever really fade completely but indeed other aspects of technology are eating its lunch.

  8. Excellent article. For me, reading and writing are can well be replaced with something else that is more accessible and useful in transmitting information. But if such will ever happen, reading and writing will die a very slow death, this because it has evolved to a stylistic, traditional place, and as you rightly said, traditions die hard.

    You might want to look at this:

    “And it’s possible that neither writing nor video is NOT the final destination.”

    Well done.

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