Technology postscript: Declining Literacy

The discussion of digital media allowing people to communicate music by what I called "sonic scores" understates the magnitude of the shift modern technology will allow and encourage. Especially as computer interfaces develop, and Internet exchange becomes easier, written communication per se will be increasingly marginalized. It is eerie to think of writing today, as part of one of the last generations to have "education" implying some ability to read complicated sentences and paragraphs. Is this an outrageous vision? Think of people interacting and manipulating their tools with pointing & clicking, of statements of opinion or stories which simply speak to you or provide video, of the increasing emphasis on the idea that anything which might confuse people is the responsibility of an institution to fix. One cannot presume on a person to be able to read. Whether they have been taught or not is immaterial. Where does the written word enter such a world? There would be a call for specialists, whether to read old material aloud (actors) for the broader market, or simply esoteric researching. There would be groups of reading hobbyists, eccentrics who say "No, really, I enjoy reading a story." We see glimpses of such a world already. Think of what is considered a "professional" web site, or the direction in which the web heads: No words, lots of video and movement. Soon, email will mostly mean voice mail (again). Since I like to work in quiet, since my work often involves listening or thinking, it will be a big step backward for me. I prefer that people write me, unless there is some compelling reason to do otherwise. That is an eccentric desire, apparently, but one which can be actualized during this brief period because of widespread literacy.

This vision of limited literacy would bring us, oddly, full circle. The medieval era involved only specialist literacy, and even provided an atmosphere in which literacy virtually equaled power. Written music was, of its nature, strange and special in some way, of elite provenance. This is almost true again today. Leading lights of popular music have their music written only after the fact, by a professional transcriber. But let us not get carried away: Literacy is not power today, nor will it be during its decline. Knowing something is increasingly cause for derision, and the more esoteric or unpopular that thing is, the more derision there will be. The magic show of technological gadgetry is the only popular & sanctioned arena for showing knowledge today, that is, any knowledge beyond the physical instinct to shake one's assets or the plodding non-knowledge of fiscal self-importance. Yes, the technology wizards do generally know something, at least they do for now, and people are OK with that. The next phase, the demand people make, is to remove the computer from the interaction, in the sense that one does not feel as though one is interacting with a computer. It will be like an algebra problem, where the computer is removed by combining equations... there are people and computers, but the people will only see each other and not the computers. The computers are still there, but not perceived. Good or bad? It depends on how much misdirection is involved, and I expect there will be plenty. More to the point here, it will undermine technology-as-toy and so relegate technological knowledge back to the "shameful" category. This is when the real fun will begin, because there will be no widespread technological literacy either; we might never have that.

The history of writing is the history of preserving records and communicating across distances. It is also about the power of symbolism and enduring proclamations. Both of these statements make just as much sense for written music as they do for writing in general. The earliest writing seems to have been developed for accounting records. Symbolically, we also seem to have come full circle, as our computer icons & buttons become more like hieroglyphics. We might even recognize the implied state of advance of Egyptian civilization within this correspondence, the sort of vague notion which lets people suggest that space aliens built the pyramids. Communicating by word of mouth has a natural rightness about it, the quality that if something is worth telling, people will tell it. Of course, things also change in the telling... messages, music, what-have-you... and so in writing we find the fixed document. We can also have messengers who cannot read the message. We can have literalist readings and postmodern deconstruction. We can have a fixed document, but no fixed meaning. People read into things what they do. Plenty of them can extract Biblical literalism from an English translation of a Latin translation. What a world it must be for them. With postmodernist readings, we have no progress, but we can recognize that what we find in a document is based on what we seek. So it is with the old musical notation and its interpretation, as well, like the runes of fantasy worlds. Oh, and the preservation! We now archive everything, in some kind of gigantic historicist mega-collection. It is under this weight of preservation, facilitated by its own technological irrelevance, that writing is crushed into a minor appendix to things people actually experience. Whether improvised or not, expression must be left to disappear to be able to live; it must, at least, leave little enough to be as enigmatic as a pyramid.

So why write? Besides the fact that written communication allows me to multitask more effectively, it seems that some worthwhile things have been done with plain text over the years. Maybe it is about being coy in general, not revealing everything at once, and not only in such an instance of gross understatement. It is also about tradition and homage, and about simply being stubborn. Postmodernism will likely collapse without texts, but who will really regret that? The misdirection of image itself might keep deconstruction afloat. Perhaps, in a grand transfiguration, the disappearance of literacy will undo the Tower of Babel. We can view writing as exclusionary and literacy as colonial, not as things to be sought, but as things to be imposed, just as the historicism which literacy made possible takes on an uncomfortable weight. In today's world of overstimulation and saturation, moving toward reduced literacy, might we not see historical knowledge relegated to the dustbin? Again, it is true to some degree already. A stunning number of people come to the Early Music FAQ for information about music from the 1920s, the 1940s, even the 1980s(!) ... what must they think music from the 1420s is called? I have been asked in all earnestness, "You mean there really is music from that time?" and I wonder if they expect 500 year-old CD masters. Anything older than fifteen minutes is "early" to these people, the same people who increasingly believe the Internet has more information than a decent library. The end of writing cannot happen too soon for them. For me, an end can only be preceded by an apotheosis, and so I approach it with some excitement.

Administrivia: Holiday time. Next column in five weeks.

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Todd M. McComb