Some of my posts are just musings with myself where I tend to challenge or justify some strongly held belief. This is another such rant. If my views don’t match yours, kindly excuse, ignore and move on. Or, alternatively, mull over the words awhile and then try and let your brain chart its own set of conclusions. Jot them down here in response, if you will, and let's have a fruitful volley of thoughts!
One of the very first things we are taught, in most systems of education at least, is to read. It starts with the alphabet. The alphabet is nothing but a set of symbols that attempt to codify certain sounds; unique combinations of which are called words and sentences. To be more specific: a sub-set of sounds sequences that we call speech. And speech is nothing but a shared method of using sound patterns generated as a result of a set of vibrations induced by our vocal cords, modulated by a complex (and learnt) set of muscular movements coordinated between our lips, tongues, nasal and oral passages. But ultimately, what speech coveys is a set of thoughts generated in our brains. Consequently, what is etched, drawn, written or printed, is an attempted capture of a set of thoughts. Consider also the fact that not every human is capable of vocal speech and many of us are not visually able. Consequently, it is pertinent to understand that the act of speaking, hearing, listening and reading may not utilize the same set of sense organs always and it may vary from person to person.
I could therefore abstract reading as merely the process of internalizing, (loudly or otherwise) what was expressed by someone at some previous point in time through a set of shared symbols. Nothing more and nothing less.
I don’t believe it needs to be glorified or iconified any further.
One thing that is striking, across all advances in science, technology and engineering, is that at the end of the day, they address an innate human need to communicate, one way or another, one matter or another. We have (arguably) come a long way from grunts and blows. We now use multiple sensory mechanisms simultaneously to communicate. Being a part of this Cambrian tech-explosion of sorts, we seldom realize that not long ago, even this that was science fiction, today is the norm and tomorrow will be passe!
As I type this in, AI systems are becoming exponentially adept almost all the processes that we had for long considered as very human forms of communication and expression. Way back in the early 2000s, I had written a blog on B2BC (Brain to Brain Communication) to describe a futuristic form of communication. We are pretty close to it! Augmented/ immersive reality will soon be mainstream and before long, we will ditch all these appendages to our sense organs (earphones, eyepieces, keyboards, screens and microphones) and be able to generate electronic communication directly from our brains. Beyond that, I am unable to imagine at the moment. Maybe some quantum technology that would obviate the need for even the digital communication channels and networks that we use today? I don’t know. I just hope our race survives long enough.
I have niece who is a few months old now, and it was utterly fascinating to observe how naturally and intuitively she understood ‘touch’, ‘scroll’, screens/ video and audio. Let’s admit; To this generation and the next, these interfaces will perhaps be as natural as waving hands or clapping was to our generation. Of course, even these interfaces are destined to become utterly obsolete, possibly way faster than things became obsolete in our generation (Walkman, anyone? :)
Back to the topic. I have seen many people from my generation and the previous ones, lament on the fact that many of the younger ones are no longer as keen on ‘reading’ as people in previous generations used to! I used to share that sentiment for a long time. Well, I still consider ‘reading’ to be a great way to keep learning.
However, I have come to realize the fact that ‘reading’ is an enormous privilege. It has been a privilege for centuries! Access and time have always been a privilege.
We live in a world where people have to be privileged to have received basic education. It is difficult for most of us with our privileged and prejudiced minds to realize that most people have to put in tremendous effort and sacrifices to acquire this ability that we consider elementary. 6 out of every 10 people are considered ‘literate’ in developing countries, while the in the developed world, this number would be over 8. Being literate is technically just the ability to read and write. It represents bottom-most rungs in this impressively tall ladder called education. There are many rungs between being ‘literate’, being able to read and having the agency to read.
What is education at the end of the day? Initial education as indicated previously, comprises of learning a complex set of symbols, utterances, rules and collections known as languages. This forms the base that would help someone to tap into the common shared pool of ‘knowledge’/ information created by other human beings. Knowledge, imho, is a best-effort articulation on how the world around us works.
Latter education is usually about specialization. Since not everyone can know and be good with everything (read: limited brain size/ density), and since humans have a very short ‘productive’ lifespan (read: about 40 useful years), it makes sense that they pick a topic or two and try to be as best as they can with it. Why go through all this grind? Ostensibly because it helps them to contribute back to this knowledge pool and to participate as some cog in this huge humungous machine called humanity. It's a vicious/ virtuous cycle, depending on your outlook.
Why is knowledge privileged? In the early days, the tools required to transfer knowledge were limited and required skills that took time to be acquired. (e.g.: Imagine thousands of years ago, trying to write this same medium article using primitive stone chisels and rock tablets!). Add to the fact that not many people back then would have the bandwidth for anything but the lowest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid (we may have come a full cycle here). At some point, even when the tools and the skills would have become more accessible, those who were previously privileged may have perceived someone else’s access to knowledge as a social threat (Whaddyamean, hecanhaz the papyrus and learn eesemcee squared? Noffair. Mydadselite, hisdadspeasant!).
It would be interesting to see how and when societies began attaching artificial monetary barriers to accessing knowledge. The truth is that over time, the nature of this knowledge pool has become so extensive and complex that it would take people who have spent their lifetimes in pursuit of a small fraction of it and have gained sufficient and necessary understanding of it at a level that would enable them to train someone else to its nuances and mechanisms. Therefore, teachers, specialists and educational institutions. Add to it humanity’s move towards industrialization, that required a large pool of similarly skilled workers. Hence a method of structured indoctrination as well. Obviously, there is a non-trivial cost to the process of setting up, running an institution with the sole purpose of disseminating and growing our collective knowledgebase. Therefore, the industrialization of education itself.
Then came the internet.
While it is true that there are thousands of things that justify a passage through the portals of these hallowed educational institutions, there are a gazillion things that do not require one to have a doctorate degree just to understand or use them. The internet that began as a few nodes in a closed network sharing scientific stuff has now engulfed the entire planet and a bit beyond. The endpoints have become relatively low-cost blocks of silicon, metal, glass and lithium magic that almost 9 out of 10 people on earth have access to: a.k.a. mobile phones. What is interesting about newer versions of mobile phones, called smart phones is their ability to engage in multi-media communication. Video has pretty much dwarfed every other mode of communication. The share of video in global internet traffic is about 80% and growing.
Is video the new reading? Imho, reading (as in reading books) is a dying phenomenon compared to the growth and engagement being seen with video.
Both creation and consumption of video has been growing at a frantic pace. YouTube has over 2 billion monthly active users! Over a billion hours of video content is consumed per day! It is available in over a hundred different counties in many different languages. Here is the important thing about videos. It easily reduces the influence of literacy, access and privilege as barriers to communication and hence access to knowledge. With the internet, mobile phones and videos, one need not necessarily need to know the alphabet to be able to listen to someone talk and illustrate some phenomenon. A person no longer needs to sit in a classroom to even learn their alphabet or even rocket-science, for that matter! The relatively open, connected and growing nature of the internet has reduced many of the privilege barriers that were associated with reading as a means to access knowledge/ communication. The other interesting feature of this network is that it has created a disproportionately large number of content creators and teachers.
Very soon, people would have learnt more through videos and have read more through subtitles in videos than they might ever have through ‘books’.
Sure, a mobile phone and data access is still a privilege, having time to spare for it is another privilege too. But the fact is that technology has made barriers that were once unsurmountable to most, suddenly look achievable! Indeed, this new access comes with its own set of new challenges (eg: trust. bias amplifications. fake stuff) and there is still a long way to go. But it amazes me every time I think about it.
So, what was the point of this whole rant? It was an ode to reading (and writing) albeit without a proper rhyme or rhythm.
Dear Reading, it was good while it lasted. Like stone tablets, papyrus and paper, you too shall pass, for something more pervasive, beautiful and sophisticated. Here’s to more and more humans communicating, listening, watching, hearing, teaching, learning, enjoying and inventing. Till then! Sayonara.