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Post-literate culture

“people have lost not just the ability to read and write about a topic, but also the ability to speak about it, all while retaining the ability to use it” (Engst).

The term “post-literacy” has been used to explore migration to visual and oral media for information. In education, this exploration has encouraged more media experiences for students, and an equal number of laments that reading and writing skills serve only to support those more animated experiences. The shift to a post-literate educational model is more fundamental than delivery strategies, though. Information storage and manipulation possibilities on the web are creating  a collective consciousness database that is defining how we see ourselves as individuals.

The challenge of online educational design is to create learning experiences that will allow students to define themselves in a wired, but basically anomic world. By recognizing post-literacy in relation to oral cultures, we can design learning experiences that allow students to navigate a complex world.

The worst thing we, as educators, can do, is to hold on to the literate culture as the ideal. Education moved from apprenticeship as a learning model to text-based learning. It has now moved from text sources back to experiential learning. Since the authority of the text diminishes in a wired world, it is important for educators to explore the strategies of teaching in a post-literate environment.

It could easily be said that “true learning” vanished with the printed word. When texts replaced in-person learning, the educators were no longer the experts. “Teachers” learned (or were taught) to lecture by repeating the voices of the experts frozen in texts. Where else but in education could the cardinal sin of learner behavior be the standard operating procedure of instructor behavior: Students are punished for plagiarism, but Instructors are rewarded for CASE (Copy And Steal Everything).

Tendencies of the Post-Literate Culture

  • Individuals rely on video and audio for information.
  • Oral communication is the “natural” voice of the Self. Thoughts are not separate from voice. Semi-formal and formal writing are necessities of the situation, and therefore inauthentic.
    • Intuition is the basis of credibility and authority. Intuition is increased by social networks, so authority becomes relative to social groups: family, friends, work groups (Schement and Curtis).
    • The quality of social credibility is determined by “entertainment” qualities (Cawkell, Puttnam).
    • There is some similarity between the post-literate concept of “intuition” and the Romantic meme of “feelings,” but filtered by the spiritual lens of 60’s and 70’s underground movement and the diversity lens of the 90’s and 00’s.
  • All Information is trivia. “Knowing” is the act of locating information and closing information gaps. “Knowledge” does not exist in texts, but in information matrices that can be accessed at will.
    • Information cascades (poor inferences based on new information) are seen as evidence of the Great Mysteries (Anderson, Holt).
    • The Great Mysteries are the myriad truths that lie amid all knowledge in the information matrix.  Since Truth is based on witnessing the event in person, one can never know whether any repeated experience is true or not (hence the “mystery.”
    • It was Noam Chomsky who identified the distinctions between “problems” and “mysteries.” In post-literate cultures, “problems” do not need to be solved for things to work.
    • Problems create “information overload” (Toffler).  The myth that the process of learning and acquiring knowledge can have negative effects on the individual that carry over into non-academic life (Tidline).
    • “Information poverty.” The lack of skill in using various kinds of information systems, the inability to know everything, or the receipt of too much repetitious info.
    • Individual decisions are solved through Situational Analysis: rely on intuition, inductive reasoning through the dramatic narrative, and positive thinking. Information and knowledge are relevant only in context.
  • Sanctity of Others. People are unique and, ultimately, mysteries. This is the trap of “diversity.” If one accepts that individuals have a right to their own thoughts, their own “kyogai,” then Truth is individual. What one “believes” is their own truth.  To profane the sanctity of others is a sin. Questioning beliefs, rationales, actions calls attention to the Naked Self, the individual isolated from the social network.

The Dark Side
Erich Fromm had much to say on the alienation of the individual in the 1950’s, but if the concept of post-literacy is accurate, the alienation of the individual today is even more tragic. In oral cultures, there is a certain level of immediacy that validates the Truth of local events. The media inundates the individual with distant experiences without any validation mechanism, information without context, and drama without meaning.  Only through the social network can the terror of isolation be avoided.

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