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.