Friday, October 5, 2012

An End to Literacy

You may be surprised to see this topic in this blog.  If you are a long time reader, you have rightly come to expect basically uplifting posts about possible positive futures.  On the face of it, this topic can seem quite discouraging.

Let me first state, I am talking about an end to literacy, or more exactly, one possible end.  This is not like the death of tyranny, where the outcome is like that for cancer that has metastasized; the question is not whether the cancer will live, the question is whether it will kill the patient in its process of dying.  Nor am I talking about the complete extinction of literacy; like calligraphy after the invention of the printing press, writing may go from a major industry to a rare hobby.

Nor do I view literacy as a bad thing, or even as a needless luxury.  Tripp Tibbetts wrote a good post on the role of books in the preservation of knowledge; the Leibowitz Society is an excellent if infrequent blog on that general topic.  What made literacy so special was it allowed the transmission of knowledge from one person to another without being in the same place and time.  As energy availability declines, the second part may grow greatly in value.  It is quite conceivable certain knowledge will be forgotten only to be learned again from books.  Not having to travel to meet in the same place is also an important consideration; after all, everyone reading this blog probably is literate.  If this was a podcast, I couldn't be quite as certain.

Therein lies the key.  Knowledge no longer needs to be printed to be transmitted.  Videos are more complex than books and are more likely to decline with the availability of energy.  Once books are made and distributed, using them takes little energy, at least during daylight hours, but the costs of production and distribution are not trivial, and they are subject to mildew.  However, while audiobooks require much more storage space than ebooks, they are much smaller than regular books, and earpieces are much smaller, simpler, and more resilient and energy efficient than screens.  As long as we retain the technology to crystallize the abundant earth of silicon and print circuits on it, we should be able to continue make audiobooks.

On the Long Ascent, your MP3 player might just be your library, too.
Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. The greater infrastructure needed to support the production of electronics is greater than that needed to run a printing press.

    But is is very true, that at some levels electronic communication is more "efficient" than physical print.

    It is more efficient. It not as sustainable.

  2. I have to disagree with the terminology you use. If you say "resilient" rather than "sustainable", I agree with you 100%. This scenario absolutely requires an intelligent "power-down" strategy. This will not happen if we continue to try to keep up the status quo as long as possible and then let collapse happen willy-nilly.

    The production of electronics does require a sophisticated level of technology. It does not, however, rely so much on the bulk transportation of materials, so it is a possibility after oil. As aircraft factories are in the Pacific Northwest where hydroelectric power is plentiful for smelting aluminum, electronics factories could be in the desert Southwest where solar power and sand are plentiful. A saddlebag full of microchips could make for a profitable journey in a post-oil world.