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If Edison had come before Gutenberg . . .
Would you be reading this, or hearing it?
If you and I had been having a conversation ten thousand years ago, our words would have disappeared into the air as soon as we spoke them.
By two thousand years ago, if we had been part of a small, highly educated elite, we might have written them down—if they had been worth the trouble and expense handwriting entailed in those days.
Only after Johannes Gutenberg popularized movable type in the fifteenth century did the written word become cheap and widespread. And only then did literacy expand beyond the educated upper classes.
Which is to say that the age of literacy constitutes a relatively brief moment in the long span of human history.
Measured against that long span, another invention came soon after the printing press. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Edison devised a method for preserving sound. It employed very different technology than printing, but applied to human voices it served the same purpose: preserving speech beyond the moment the speech was produced.
Suppose Edison had come first. Would large numbers of people have ever bothered to learn to read and write? Reading and writing are difficult tasks. They don’t come naturally to anyone. Everyone has to be taught.
By contrast, no one has to be taught to speak. Infants learn to speak without lessons and without observable effort. Their brains are wired for spoken language, and they absorb it from the people around them. (Additional languages learned by adults are a different matter.)
Imagine a scenario at some time in the past. Parents send their young children to school. In first grade the parents are given an option: Would you like your child to spend two or three years mastering reading and writing? Or would you rather your child spend two or three minutes learning to operate a voice recorder?
Each method allows the child to preserve speech; each allows the child access to the spoken words of others. Everyone can master the recorder; some will never master reading.
A few of those trying this thought experiment might respond that reading is better because it is harder: our brains get stronger from exercise just as our muscles do.
This is fair enough as far as it goes. But no one kept working out square roots by hand after the invention of the calculator, and people who engage in avoidable effort simply for the challenge have always been few.
What’s the point of all the above? Gutenberg did come before Edison. And literacy exists.
But perhaps not for much longer. A century ago, people in America who couldn’t read were at a grave disadvantage to those who could. They couldn’t discover the latest news, which was the monopoly of newspapers. They had no access to the most popular form of story-telling: the novel. They floundered in school and were confined to the most menial jobs.
Today, nonliterate people can navigate life fairly well. News is easily available in spoken form on television, radio and podcasts. Even major newspapers include videos on their web sites. Movies long ago eclipsed novels as the most popular genre of story-telling. And novels themselves, and other books, typically have audio versions. Success in school still requires literacy, but YouTube is making huge inroads into education of all kinds, from theoretical physics to the practical mechanics of car repair. Donald Trump seems to have demonstrated that a person can become president of the United States and read very little.
The written word isn’t going to vanish. Words are still handy on signs, for which there is no audio equivalent. Books are easier to flip through than audio recordings. An accomplished reader can digest an article much faster than the same article can be read aloud (although it’s possible to accelerate playback). And many people simply like books: the look of them, the feel, even the smell.
But literacy is clearly losing ground. A straw in the wind: As a teacher I have noticed a dramatic decrease in the handwriting skills of my students. Apparently—and for good reason, I think—much less time is devoted to handwriting in elementary school than was the case fifty years ago. The ability to enter letters on a computer keyboard or smartphone screen is more essential to the way people live today. Yet computers and phones can already transcribe speech, and as they get better at it, even keyboarding skills will become obsolete. And at the other end of the transmission chain, computers and phones can now read messages aloud.
Another straw: My students are at least as intelligent today as my students ever were, but in many cases they find reading books a daunting task. I used to assign Richard Wright’s Native Son to my American history classes. It’s a great novel about coming of age in Chicago in the mid-twentieth century, but it’s long for a novel: more than five hundred pages in one of the most popular editions. So many of my students simply skipped it as too much work that I replaced it with Wright’s much shorter Black Boy.
Winston Churchill in November 1942, after long-awaited Allied victories in North Africa, declared, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
I think we’re farther along in the age of literacy. We’re not at the end, but we might be at the beginning of the end. What makes me say this? The evidence cited above. And the fact that I got the Churchill quote from Edison (here) rather than from Gutenberg.