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The civilization of illiteracy

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2001 | BY Mihai Nadin 

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A Sense of the Future

Beyond literacy begins a realm which for many is still science fiction. The name civilization of illiteracy is used to define direction and to point out markers. The richness and diversity of this realm is indicative of the nature of our own practical experiences of self-constitution. The landscape mapped out by these experiences is simultaneously its own Borgesian map. One marker along the road from present to future leaves no room for doubt: the digital foundation of the pragmatic framework. But this does not mean that the current dynamics of change can be reduced to the victorious march of the digital or of technology, in general.

Having challenged the model of a dominant sign system -- language and its literate experience -- we suggested that a multitude of various sign processes effectively override the need for and justification of literacy in a context of higher efficiency expectations. We could alternatively define the pragmatic framework of the civilization of illiteracy as semiotic in the sense that human practical experiences become more and more subject to sign processes. The digital engine is, in final analysis, a semiotic machine, churning out a variety of signs. Nevertheless, the semiotization of human practical experiences extends beyond computers and symbolic processing.

As we have seen, in all human endeavors, semiotic awareness is expressed in choices (of means of expression and communication) and patterns of interaction. Successive fashion trends, no less than the new media, global interaction through networks, cooperative work, and distributive configurations are semiotic identifiers. Interfaces are semiotic entities through which difficult aspects of the relation between individuals and society are addressed. More precisely, to interface means to advance methods and notions of a new form of cultural engineering, that has the same condition as genetic engineering, although not necessarily based on its mechanism, as the proponents of memetics would like us to believe.

No matter how spectacular new technologies are, and how fast the rate of their adoption, pragmatic characteristics that make the quantum leap of efficiency possible within the new scale of humankind remain the defining element of the dynamics of change. To make this point clear no argument is superfluous and no stone of doubt or suspicion should be left unturned. Our concern is not with the malignant rhetoric against technology. It is with a false sense of optimism focused on fleeting embodiments of human creativity, not on its integration in meaningful experiences. Whether a spectacular multimedia program, a virtual reality environment, genetically based medicine, broadband human interaction, or cooperative endeavors, what counts are the human cognitive resources, in the form of semiotic processes irreducible to language and literacy, at work under circumstances of globality.

Cognitive energy

It is impossible to tire of acknowledging applications from which many will people benefit, but which many resent even before these applications become available. They all become possible once they transcend the pragmatic framework of the civilization of literacy because they are based on structurally different means of expression, communication, and signification. We have all witnessed some of these applications: sensors connected to unharmed nervous terminals allow the quadriplegic to move. A child in a wheelchair who exercises in virtual reality can be helped to function independently in the world that qualifies his condition as a handicap. Important skills can be acquired by interpolating patterns of behavior developed in the physical world in the rough draft of the simulated world. People are helped to recover after accidents and illness, and are supported in acquiring skills in an environment where the individual sets the goals. In Japan, virtual reality helps people prepare for earthquakes and tests their ability to cope with the demand for fast response. Interconnected virtual worlds support human interactions in the space of their scientific, poetic, or artistic interest, or combinations thereof, stimulating the hope, as naive as it may sound, for a new Renaissance.

Not everything need be virtual. Active badgesTM transmit data pertinent to an individual's identification in his or her world. Not only is it easier to locate a person, but the memory of human interaction, in the form of digital traces, allows people and machines to remember. You step into a room, and your presence is automatically acknowledged. The computer lets you know how many messages are waiting for you, and from whom. It evaluates how far you are from the monitor and displays the information so you can see it from that distance. It reminds you of things you want to do at a certain time. Details relevant to our continuous self-constitution through extremely complex practical experiences play an important role in making such interactions more efficient. A personal diary of actions, dialogues, and thinking out loud can be automatically recorded. Storing data from the active badge and from images captured during a certain activity is less obtrusive than having someone keep track of us. This is a new form of personal diary, protected, to the extent desired, from intrusion or misuse. This diary collects routine happenings that might seem irrelevant -- patterns of movement, dialogue, eating, reading, drawing, building models, and analyzing data. The record can be completed by documenting patterns of behavior of emotional or cognitive significance, such as fishing, mountain climbing, wasting time, or dancing -- according to one's wish. At the end of the day, or whenever requested, this diary of our living can be e-mailed to the writer. One can review the events of a day or search for a certain moment, for those details that make one's time meaningful.

In the world beyond literacy and literacy-based practical experiences, we can search for artistic events. A play by Shakespeare can be projected onto the screen of our eyes, where the boundary between reality and fiction starts. The play will feature the actors of one's choosing. The viewer can even intercalate any person in the cast, even himself or herself, and deliver a character's lines. Sports events and games can be viewed in the same way. In another vein, we can initiate dialogues with the persons we care for, or get involved in the community we choose to belong to. Belonging, in this new sense, means going beyond the powerless viewing of political events that seem as alien as almost all the mass-media performances they are fed with. Belonging itself is redefined, becoming a matter of choice, not accident. Belonging goes beyond watching the news and political events on TV, beyond the impotence we feel with respect to the huge political machine. All these can happen as a private, very intense experience, or as interaction with others, physically present or not. To see the world differently can lead to taking another person's, or creature's, viewpoint. How does a recent immigrant, or a visitor from abroad, perceive the people of the country he has landed in? What do human beings look like to a whale, a bee, an ant, a shark? We can enter the bodies of the handicapped to find out how a blind person negotiates the merciless world of speeding cars and people in a hurry. The empathy game has been played with words and theatrics in many schools. But once a person assumes the handicapped body in a simulated universe, the insight gained is no longer based on how convincing a description is, but on the limits of self-constitution as handicapped. People can learn more about each other by sharing their conditions and limitations. And, hopefully, they will ascertain a sense of solidarity beyond empty expressions of sympathy.

That all these semiotic means -- expression in very complex dynamic sign systems -- change the nature of individual practical experiences and of social life cannot be emphasized enough. Everything we conceive of can be viewed, criticized, felt, sensed, experienced, and evaluated before it is actually produced. The active badge can be attached to a simulated person -- an avatar -- let loose to walk through the plans for a new building, or on the paths of an expedition through mountains. The diary of space discovery is at least as important as the personal diary of a person working in a real factory, research facility, or at home. Before another tree is cut, before another riverbed is moved, before a new housing development is constructed, before a new trail is opened, people can find out what changes of immediate and long-term impact might result.

It is possible to go even a step beyond the integrated world of digital processing and to entrust extremely complicated processes to neural networks trained to perform functions of command, control, and evaluation. Unexpected situations can be turned into learning experiences. Where individuals sometimes fail -- for instance under emotional stress -- neural networks can easily perform as well as humans do, without the risks associated with the unpredictability of human behavior. The active badge can be connected, through a local area network of wall-mounted sensors that collect information, to a neural network-based procedure designed to process the many bits and pieces of knowledge that are most of the time wasted. People could learn about their own creativity and about cognitive processes associated with it. They can derive knowledge from the immense amount of their aborted thoughts and actions. Ubiquity and unobtrusiveness qualify such means for the field of medical care, for the support of child development, and for the growing elderly population. With the advent of optical computers, and even biological data processing devices, chances will increase for a complete restructuring of our relation to data, information processing, and interhuman relationships. Individuals will ascertain their characteristics more and more, thus increasing their role in the socio-political network of human interaction.

Some people still decide for others on certain matters: How should children play? How should they study? What are acceptable rules of behavior in family and society? How should we care for the elderly? When is medical intervention justified? Where does life end and biological survival become meaningless? These people exercise power within the set of inherited values that originated in a pragmatic context of hierarchy associated with literacy. This does not need to be so, especially in view of the many complexities hidden in questions like the ones posed above. Our relation to life and death, to universality, permanence, non-hierarchical forms of life and work, to religion and science, and last but not least to all the people who make up our world of experiences, is bound to change. Once individuality is redefined as a locus of interaction through rich sign systems, not just as an identity to be explained away in the generality that gnoseologically replaces the individual, politics itself will be redefined.

Literacy is not all it's made out to be

Enthusiasm over technology is not an argument; and semiotics, obfuscated by semiologues, is not a panacea. George Steiner pointed out that scientists, who "have been tempted to assert that their own methods and vision are now at the center of civilization, that the ancient primacy of poetic statement and metaphysical image is over." This is not an issue of criteria based on empirical verification, or the recent tradition of collaborative achievement, correctly contrasted to the apparent idiosyncrasy and egotism of literacy. The pragmatic framework reflects the challenge of efficiency in our world of increased population, limited resources, and the domination of nature. This framework is critical to the human effort to assess its own possibilities and articulate its goals. Let us accept Steiner's idea -- although the predicament is clearly unacceptable -- that sciences "have added little to our knowledge or governance of human possibility." Let us further accept that "there is demonstrably more insight into the matter of man in Homer, Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky than in the entire neurology of statistics." This, if it were true, would only mean that such an insight is less important to the practical experience of human self-constitution than literacy-based humanities would like us to believe.

Literary taste or preference aside, it is hard to understand the epistemological consequence of a statement like "No discovery of genetics impairs or surpasses what Proust knew of the spell or burden of lineage." All this says is that in Steiner's practical experience of self-constitution, a pragmatics other than genetics proves more consequential. Nobody can argue with this. But from the particular affinity to Proust, one cannot infer that consequences for a broader number of people, the majority of whom will probably never know anything about genetics, are not connected to its discoveries. We may be touched by the elegant argument that "each time Othello reminds us of the rust of dew on the bright blade, we experience more of the sensual, transient reality in which our lives must pass than it is the business or ambition of physics to impart." After all the rhetoric that has reverberated in the castle of literacy, the physics of the first three minutes or seconds of the universe proves to be no less metaphysical, and no less touching, than any example from the arts, literature, or philosophy that Steiner or anyone else can produce. Science only has different motivations and is expressed in a different language. It challenges human cognition and sentiment, and awareness of self and others, of space and time, and even of literature, which seems to have stagnated once the potential of literacy was exhausted. The very possibility of writing as significantly as the writers of the past did diminishes, as the practical experience of literate writing is less and less appropriate to the new experiences of self-constitution in the civilization of illiteracy.

The argument can go on and on, until and unless we settle on a rather simple premise: The degree of significance of anything connected to human identity -- art, work, science, politics, sex, family -- is established in the act of human self-constitution and cannot be dictated from outside it, not even by our humanistic tradition. The air, clean or polluted, is significant insofar as it contributes to the maintenance of life. Homer, Proust, van Gogh, Beethoven, and the anonymous artist of an African tribe are significant insofar as human self-constitution integrates each or every one of them, in the act of individual identification. Projecting their biological constitution into the world -- we all breathe, see, hear, exercise physical power, and perceive the world -- humans ascertain their natural reality. The experience of making oneself can be as simple as securing food, water, and shelter, or as complex as composing or enjoying a symphony, painting, writing, or meditating about one's condition. If in this practical experience one has to integrate a stick or a stone, or a noise, or rhythm in order to obtain nourishment, or to project the individual in a sculpture or musical piece, the significance of the stick or stone or the noise is determined in the pragmatic context of the self-constitutive moment.

Many contexts confirm the significance of literacy-based practical experiences. History, even in its computational form or in genetic shape, is an example. Literacy made quite a number of practical experiences possible: education, mass media, political activism, industrial manufacture. This does not imply that these domains are forever wed to literacy. A few contexts, such as crafts, predated literacy. Information processing, visualization, non-algorithmic computation, genetics, and simulation emerged from the pragmatics that ascertained literacy. But they are also relatively independent of it. Steiner was correct in stating that "we must countenance the possibility that the study and transmission of literature may be of only marginal significance, a passionate luxury like the preservation of the antique." His assertion needs to be extended from literature to literacy.

The realization that we must go beyond literacy does not come easy and does not follow the logic of the current modus operandi of the scholars and educators who have a stake in literacy and tradition. Their logic is itself so deeply rooted in the experience of written language that it is only natural to extend it to the inference that without literacy the human being loses a fundamental dimension. The sophistry is easy to catch, however. The conclusion implies that the practical experience of language is identical to literacy. As we know, this is not the case. Orality, of more consequence in our day than the majority are aware of, and in more languages that do not have a writing system, supports human existence in a universe of extreme expressive richness and variety.

Many arguments, starting with those against writing enunciated in ancient times and furthered in various criticisms of literacy, point to the many dimensions of language that were lost once it started to be tamed and its regulated use enforced upon people. Again, Steiner convincingly articulates a pluralistic view: "...we should not assume that a verbal matrix is the only one in which articulations and conduct of the mind are conceivable. There are modes of intellectual and sensuous reality founded not on language, but on other communicative energies, such as the icon or the musical note." He correctly describes how mathematics, especially under the influence of Leibniz and Newton, became a dynamic language: "I have watched topologists, knowing no syllable of each other's language, working effectively together at a blackboard in the silent speech common to their craft."

Networks of cognitive energy

Chemistry, physics, biology, and recently a great number of other practical experiences of human self-constitution, formed their own languages. Indeed, the medium in which experiences take place is not a passive component of the experience. It is imprinted with the degree of necessity that made such a medium a constitutive part of the experience. It has its own life in the sense that the experience involves a dynamics of exchange and awareness of its many components. The cuneiform tablets could not hold the depth of thinking of the formulas in which the theory of relativity is expressed. They probably had a better expressive potential for a more spontaneous testimony to the process of self-identification of the people who projected themselves in the act of shaping damp tablets, inscribing them, and baking them to hardness. Ideographic writing may well explain, better than orality, the role of silence in Taoism and Buddhism, the tension of the act of withdrawal from speech and writing, or the phonetic subtleties at work when more than 2000 ideographs were reduced to the standard 600 signs now in use. The historic articulation of the Torah, its mixture of poetry and pragmatic rules, is different in nature from the writings, in different alphabets and different pragmatic structures, reflected in the language of the New Testament or of the Koran.

Writing under the pragmatics of limited human experiences, and writing after the Enlightenment, not to mention today's automated writing and reading, are fundamentally different. Gombrich recalls that Gutenberg earned a living by making amulet mirrors used by people in crowds to catch the image of sacred objects displayed during certain ceremonies. The animistic thought marks this experience. It is continued in the moving type that Gutenberg invented, yet another mirror to duplicate the life of handwriting, which type imitated. Printed religious texts began their lives as talismans. After powerful printing presses were invented, writing extends a different thought -- machines at work -- in the sequence of operations that transform raw materials into products.

All the characteristics associated with literacy are characteristics of the underlying structure of practical experiences, values, and aspirations embodied in the printing machines. The linear function, replicated in the use of the lever, was generalized in machines made of many levers. It was also generalized in literacy, the language machine that renders language use uniform. Writing originated in a context of the limited sequences of human self-constitutive practical experiences embodied in the functioning of mechanical machines. The continuation of the sequential mode in more elaborate experiences, as in automated production lines, will be with us for quite a while. Nevertheless, sequentiality is increasingly complemented by parallel functioning. Similar or different activities carried through at the same time, at one location or at several, are qualitatively different from sequential activities. Self-constitution in such parallel experiences results in new cognitive characteristics, and thus in new resources supporting higher efficiency. The deterministic component carried over from literacy-based practical experiences reflects awareness of action and reaction. Its dualistic nature is preserved in the right/wrong operational distinctions of the literate use of language, and thus in the logic attached to it.

Pragmatic expectations of efficiency no longer met by conceptual or material experiences based on the model embodied in literacy have led to attempts to transcend determinism, as well as linear functions, sequentiality, and dualism. A new underlying structure prompts a pragmatics of non-linear relations, of a different dynamics, of configurations, and of multi-valued systems. A wide array of methods and technologies facilitates emancipation from the centralism and hierarchy embodied in literacy-based pragmatics. The pragmatic framework of the civilization of illiteracy requires that the centralism of literacy be replaced through massive distribution of tasks, and non-hierarchic forms of human interactions. Augmented by worldwide networking, this pragmatics has become global in scope. Probably just as significant is the role mediation plays in the process. As a specific form of human experience, mediation increases the effectiveness of praxis by affording the benefits of integration to human acts of self-constitution. Mediation replaces the analytic strategy inherited through literacy, opening avenues for reaching a sense of the whole in an experience of building hypotheses and performing effective synthesis. In order to realize what all this means, we can think of everything involved in the conception, design, manufacturing, distribution, and integration of computers in applications ranging from trivial data management to sophisticated simulations. The effort is, for all practical purposes, global.

The brightest minds, from many countries, contribute ideas to new concepts of computation. The design of computers involves a large number of creative professionals from fields as varied as mechanical engineering, chip design, operating systems, telecommunications, ergonomy, interface design, product design, and communication. The scale of the effort is totally different from anything we know of from previous practical experiences. Before such a new computer will become the hardware and software that eventually will land on our desks, it is modeled and simulated, and subjected to a vast array of tests that are all the expression of the hypothesis and goals to be synthesized in the new product.

Some people might have looked at the first personal computers as a scaled-down version of the mainframes of the time. Within the pragmatics associated with literacy, this is a very good representation. In the pragmatics we are concerned with, this linear model does not work, and it does not explain how new experiences come about. Chances are that the mass-produced machines increasingly present in a great number of households reach a performance well above those mainframes with which the PC might have been compared.

Representing the underlying structure of the pragmatics of the civilization of illiteracy, the digital becomes a resource, not unlike electricity, and not unlike other resources tapped in the past for increasing the efficiency of human activity. In the years to come, this aspect will dominate the entire effort of the acculturation of the digital. Today, as in the Industrial Age of cars and other machines, the industry still wants to put a computer on every desk. The priority, however, should be to make computation resources, not machines, available to everyone. Those still unsure about the Internet and the World Wide Web should understand that what makes them so promising is not the potential for surfing, or its impressive publication capabilities, but the access to the cognitive energy that is transported through networks.


From: A Sense of the Future (Chapter 2, Book 5), of The Civilization of Illiteracy, Dresden University Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. Mihai Nadin is chair of Computational Design at the University of Wuppertal, Germany.

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