Post Literacy

Peter Pan - literacy ad

The concept or theory of post literacy (which I learned about via James Bridle from is described by Wikipedia as a stage ‘wherein multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read written words, is no longer necessary’. However, literacy encompasses much more than just the ability to read (and analyze) written words. Media literacy, the equally broad term used to expand the concept of literacy, is mostly used to describe the capability to analyze, decode and criticize the manifold messages incorporated in the different (digital) media. Media literacy has with the growing popularity of online communication, again become a much debated topic and an interest of educational reformers. Post literacy, as a concept, incorporates media literacy but pushes the idea even further, to a future where text no longer is perceived as the dominant medium. According to, post literacy focuses on the other (medial) means of communicating messages, exploring ‘visual, interactive, computational and textual literacies’. As they state, to be able to decipher the (often hidden) messages in multimedia communication, polymodal literacy is needed. This creation of a polymodal literacy is a necessity in today’s society, where the advance of the Internet has lead to an enormous rise in the use of multi(-digital-)media communication, transcending the explicit focus on text inherited from the print era. As states on its website:

“ is a response to the relationship that people in the twenty-first century have to literacy and shifting modes of communication. The Web has evolved from a text-based technology to one focused on graphic display and visual layout. Multimedia content largely privileges visual over verbal content.”

Exploring the concept of post literacy in a very practical manner, is using steganography and online deciphering software to post multimedia puzzles with hidden messages for you to solve (as a means to further develop your post literacy level), as you can see here.

The power of wordsAs Doug Johnson states, the interest in multimedia and the concept of post literacy has grown due to the increased use of small and portable video and movie playing devices, further pushing the dominant textual media into a supporting role. This demise of the power of textual media reminds us of a foregone past, showing similarities with preliterate (oral) societies in which, as Wikipedia states, people have ‘not yet discovered how to read and write’, the difference being that ‘a postliterate society has replaced the written word with an electronic oral culture, or some other means of communication.’ As Walter Ong describes in Orality and Literacy, in the transformation from a preliterate to a literate society, the capability to write and read had to be acquired, in a similar fashion as one learns to use a tool. According to Ong this fundamental transformation also meant a shift in the way we think and structure thoughts. Mike Ridley is very much interested in this change in how we think, triggered by the use of different media, and in the influence this media use has on the way our brain functions (some even state that the way we process information in today’s information overloaded society has lead to our brains looking ever more like those of schizophrenics, giving rise to ponderings about a new schizophrenic society and schizophrenic ways of thinking). But Ridley wants to stress not the negative connotations surrounding post literacy, which focus on the decline of textual communication and reading, where he wants to emphasize the inherent strengths of both orality and literacy, to see what the potential of a post literate society could be.

As Dough Johnson remarks, the increased use of media other than textual (especially in an online environment) combined with the fact that we, as recent studies have shown, read differently online, might mean we are heading towards a post literate society faster than we think. Although Johnson states that he does still see a role for textual media and communication, in his definition of a post literate society, people choose to use the other media as their main means of communication, they have a preference for them or, as he states ‘The post literate’s need for extended works or larger amounts of information is met through visual and/or auditory formats.’

Data visualization

This development described by Johnson and others can be seen as closely connected to the research that is being conducted on new ways of data visualization, in which graphic or figurative representations of large amounts of data are used to get an overview of and deeper insight into complex and huge information compounds and objects, constructing a way of dealing with information overload and representing it in a non-textual manner. As Wikipedia states, the primary goal of data visualizations is ‘to communicate information clearly and effectively through graphical means’. The necessity of these kinds of tools or representations in a way illustrates the short-fall of textual communication in the online environment (in some occasions). Where information is ever more superfluous and the need to grasp large amounts of data (especially in science) ever more important, other media might be more convenient.

Doug Johnson looks at the way the move towards post literacy is influencing books and the way we use them (online), noting the rise of comics and graphic novels, (or think for instance of the popularity of Manga and role-playing games which increasingly use complex narrative structures in a non-textual manner). He then goes on to denote what the coming of a post literate net-generation means for the future (post literate) library. One of the most important point Johnson makes is that we need to get away from and look critically at our bias towards print, which is prejudicing our literacy skills when compared with our other media knowledge and apprehension. He sees the ‘return’ to a post literate society as a natural development towards a more multisensory way of communication:

“But I would argue that post literacy is a return to more natural forms of multisensory communication—speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as easily as writing. Information, emotion, and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multimedia formats.”

Cinderella - literacy addJohn Connell responds to Johnson in a post in which he emphasizes the continuing importance of text, even in an online environment. Although he agrees with Johnson concerning the lack of attention for other forms of literacy, he does state that ‘the debate should not be about print but about the utility, beauty, strength and continued resilience of text in its multifarious contexts, whether on paper or on any other medium.’ This is actually a very interesting point that he makes, to take a closer look at and investigate how text ‘mixes’ with other media, and how it is perceived and consumed in the context of other (digital) media. How does the interaction between text and other media change the way we analyze and interpret the message inherent in this multimedia format, which then in a way transcends the mere textual medium?

Mike Ridley perhaps captures the full meaning of post literacy best (agreeing more with Johnson than with Connell where it comes to the dominance of text) in his definition, in which he says that ‘post literacy is the phrase used to capture the possibility of rich human communication that exceeds (and hence replaces) visible language (writing and reading) as the dominant means of the understanding and exchange of ideas.” Ridley introduces here an important aspect I feel has been missing in the above discussion, focusing mainly on post literacy and the consumer side of multimedia communication. For as I believe, to be able to communicate in a post-textual manner, the producers of these new forms of online communication also need to become post literate.

One way to think about the idea of a post-literate-writer (a contradiction in terminus) or a post textual content producer, is to reflect upon ideas that transcend the concept of media, focusing rather on (the development towards) a single medium or on the disappearance of media as such. As Kiene Brillenburg Wurth states in her article Multimediality, Intermediality, and Medially Complex Digital Poetry (referring to Friedrich Kittler), the Internet is leading to ‘the end of medial compartmentalization’. She cites Kittler saying:

“(…) If the optical fibre network reduces all formerly separate data flows to one standardized digital series of numbers, any medium can be translated into another. With numbers nothing is impossible. Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, memory, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping – a total connection of all media on a digital base erases the notion of the medium itself.”

This closely resembles Mark Amerika’s idea of ‘the artist as the medium’, through which the different communication streams flow, as he states ‘the artist is the medium or instrument, and the networked space of flows play this instrument to facilitate the development of creative compositions’ (Meta/Data,19). This idea of the content creator as the real medium, putting things on its head in a way, literally incorporating and mixing the different media into one single communication expression, in whatever format, could be a nice fit for thinking about what a post literate content producer should be able to do.

TV Books

As Brillenburg states, with the coming of digital art, the idea (or the myth) of separate and sustainable media with their own specifics or ‘essence’ is destroyed. She refers to the 19th century connotation of a Gesamtkunstwerk, in which one tried to connect the different media. However, as she states, the Gesamtkunstwerk has been ‘evolving into the kind of aural-visual-verbal computer games and multi-sensory interactive art works that have now grown so familiar to us.’ Brillenburg thinks the idea or concept of multimedia is no longer sufficient to describe the new forms of digital media communication that are taking place online, and she proposes to use the term intermediality instead, which can incorporate better the different ways in which media ‘contaminate’ each other, as a way to describe the ‘in-between’ of media. As she describes it:

“Intermediality projects not simply a ‘together-art’ or any other continuation of nineteenth-century Gesamtkunst, but a criss-crossing between and mutual infusion of different medial modalities. Words become like colours, colours like words, texts like buildings and spaces, sounds are spatially heard – such contaminations date back not so much to Wagner’s utopian view of the arts united, but to those avant-garde experiments that questioned the respective identities and conditions of possibility of the different art forms.”

For me this summarizes quite clearly how the move towards a post literate society is not only about being able to analyze and interpret polymodal ways of communicating, but also about being able to produce these forms of communication in a good (and comprehensible) way. Not only can we be seen moving towards a society in which the consumption of media is increasingly becoming post literate, the digital media producer, artist, or even scholar, is also increasingly working in a mixed medial manner. Like Mark Amerika remarks when he states that he lets the media flow through him (or her) this means the online content producer will be using media less and less as separate entities. Although these post literate characteristics of mixing media are mostly seen in visual arts, we are also increasingly seeing multimedial (or intermedial) writers, poets (the focus of Brillenburg’s analysis) and even scholars, who are less biased towards text, using different media in a natural and even unconscious way (emphasizing the flow) like for instance Paul D. Miller (aka Dj Spooky) or Mark Amerika have been doing in their scholarly and/or artistic works. It might be interesting to reflect upon what the influence of these ways of post literate thinking and (more important perhaps) of post textual doing, might be on the production and consumption of scholarly books. What kind of consequences might these developments have for the way scholars operate in a digital environment, using new digital media to communicate their research? It would be equally interesting to think about what a post literate (or post-textual) humanities field would look like, a form of humanities scholarship in which text would no longer be the dominant choice for transferring or communication research. Maybe the experiments Lev Manovich has been doing with digital humanities and data visualization, and his emphasis on a new methodology of ‘cultural analytics’, are a good example of what a post literate, post textual or polymodal humanities might start off from.

2 comments on “Post Literacy

  1. Pingback: Postliteracy: a view from Leiden : John Connell: The Blog

  2. Pingback: What is Post-Literacy? Part 2 | Beyond Literacy

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