The destiny of reading and writing is extinction, like the skills of operating a spinning wheel, cutting a quill pen, and knapping flint tools. Reading and writing will fall into increasing disuse until they are known and practiced only by specialists and hobbyists, the way some people still use Morse code or know how to read Old English.
Replacing reading and writing will be talking and listening mediated by video and music. Photographs too, but video, movies, and then holograms or VR presentations, whatever is the next thing, it will be visual and or musical or both, in quality. We’ll still talk to each other in face-to-face conversations, although those will become increasingly rare even inside the home.
It’s already happening, as anyone can see by examining the state of communications technology. I had thought until recently that the trends to music and video were merely preferences enabled by cheap, available technology, not that these trends would utterly displace reading and writing.
I was doing research for a book I’m writing, research that immersed me into evolutionary and geologic scales of time. I became aware again of how recent modern human culture is. Imagine a timeline of history on earth, stretching from the ground to the height of the Empire State building, homo sapiens represented by the thickness of a postage stamp at the top of the building, and modern culture since the last ice age as the thickness of the adhesive on that stamp. On that scale, the duration of literacy doesn’t even show up. It’s a blip.
I am an avid reader and writer, always have been, but it struck me that the practice of visually scanning and interpreting tens of thousands of words in one long serial order and then making sense of the whole, is absurd on the face of it. That doesn’t even sound like a viable methodology. If somebody proposed it, you’d laugh.
Reading and writing have been highly valued skills in society during my whole life. They certainly have paid my rent. They are skills like being able make good stone spear points, difficult to learn but very useful and highly valued by the society – in their time. Yet I always assumed reading and writing were forever. They are the very definition of civilization. Fifty thousand printed books are published every year, with ten or twenty times as many new ebooks. The very foundation of society seems set in the written word – history, literature, law, science.
The culture of making stone spear points must have seemed just as important, vibrant, all-encompassing and never-ending in its time. What could ever replace a good spear point? People will always have to eat.
The records of civilization are increasingly kept in video format. Movies are the new literature. History is conveyed in documentaries and popular songs. Science reporting now emphasizes ‘data visualization.’ Students don’t read textbooks, they watch YouTube instructions. And fewer people are reading all those printed books that come out every year. Bookstores are disappearing, as are newspapers and professional journals. I doubt if anybody is reading a million new ebooks each year. Reading and writing are technologies that have peaked.
Why am I still committed to reading and writing? Looking with a cold eye, it’s only what I’m used to, what I’ve always done. Reading and writing have been successful for me, but they’re obsolete. I need to get with the future.
I estimate reading and writing will last longer than I will. They probably have another hundred years to run but extinction is their destiny. Hard-won skills though they are, they just won’t be needed in the future except in niche applications.
So I’ve decided. When I finish writing my current novel, it will be my last. Henceforth I will turn my attention to video communication. I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out. Maybe there’s an instructional book I can read.