Does literacy still matter?

In an intriguing recent article in Science Magazine (subscription required), Douglas Oard of the University of Maryland asks what the cultural consequences of better speech recognition software will be.

He notes that the reason literacy is so important is the “emphemeral nature of speech.” Even after audio recording became cheap, print was still necessary because it is easier to store and easier to skim and search.

However, new technology is rapidly shifting the balance, as hardware space becomes cheap and computerized searching of audio material becomes effective. Perhaps the costs of learning to read will soon cease to be justified.


Oard recognizes there will be resistance to the idea (note that he doesn’t actually endorse eliminating reading and writing), but he cautions that we should think with our heads, not our biases:

Our parents complained that our generation relied on calculators rather than learning arithmetic… In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Pharaoh Thamus says of writing, “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.” … Our generation will unlock the full potential of the spoken word, but it may fall to our children, and to their children, to learn how best to use that gift.

D. W. Oard (2008). SOCIAL SCIENCE: Unlocking the Potential of the Spoken Word Science, 321 (5897), 1787-1788 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157353

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