Notes on a Post-Typographic World

51-NOcuUDuLIn 1998, David Reinking suggested that we were moving towards a “post-typographic” world. He predicted that written forms of communication would no longer be characterized by typesetting (the technology of molded metal forms and ink) and print (the end result of this mechanical technology). Instead, written forms of communication would eventually become completely electronic. This would seem like a fairly innocuous transition in the history of the written word, except Reinking warns that this phenomenon would carry along with it “broad-ranging consequences for a literate culture” (Reinking xx). There was some equivocation about the term typographic with the advent of laser printers and fax machines, but Reinking distinguishes between typographic text as being print on static, material surfaces, and post-typographic as being digitally-displayed text.

More and more things are becoming increasingly electronic. The introduction to the Handbook of Literacy and Technology mentioned a handful of services and commercial enterprises that had digitized their offerings. Of course, journal publishing in the academic sphere is largely becoming consolidated in favor of digital formats. Walk into just about any library, and what used to be magazines and periodicals are now workstations and Internet lounge areas. By and large, I do not think there has been a very big societal protest against the post-typographical. Other than librarians and people of a certain nostalgic persuasion, I perceive that the post-typographical has been a welcome addition among the masses. Although I am in the nostalgic camp, and agree with Reinking that “Books. . . are cultural icons that anchor the experience of being literate” (Reinking xxii).

Early on in the post-typographic section, Reinking cited a study where other authors have used the term post-typographic to “describe the influence of electronic media in operationalizing postmodern views of meaning or to suggest that writing in electronic media is more rhetorical compared to printed media, where writing is more philosophical” (Reinking xx). I think there is something important to this distinction, because electronic media has become such a global communication platform, which includes the beliefs and opinions of countless others. Print culture, on the other hand, will always be more philosophical, because the tangible book and the written word will always see its author or reader as an autonomous unit. This distinction, and the invariable disconnection of the reader of the printed word from the rhetorical sphere is not a bad thing. In fact, I find it desirable. The philosophical nature of the book is closer to our materiality and embedded nature within the environment. Call me a hippie if you must. But the typographical is much more than that even. A book is immediately divorced from the swaying opinions of others. I think this is a radical distinction and one that deserves more credit.

Even after reading the introduction to the Handbook of Literacy and Technology, I still think it is safe to define literacy very simply as the ability to read and write. This, of course, means that one who is literate is able to communicate with and understand a given language, whether that language is symbolic (the alphabet or a programming language) or pronounced (the ability to speak, prosody and enunciation, etc.). Whether you are reading a book or an Internet article, the activity you are engaging in is still literacy as just defined. True, technology has given us brand new languages and modes of communication to learn. But the concept of literacy is still the same, I think. I mean, what difference is there really (in terms of defining literacy), when reading the word “typographic,” as printed with ink on paper, and reading the word “typographic” as a digital text? It is still the same symbols, and the word looks the same, so the act of being literate of that particular word is the same as well. No doubt, there are multiple levels to literacy, and it might be helpful to think about it in terms of a spectrum. This is why we have different reading levels in school, and on the backs of books for children. So, I do not think the question is “What is literacy?” but, “At what age does one become literate?” This should be an easy question to answer for those in Early Childhood Education. But, like any skill, being literate is something that we can always strengthen through language acquisition and reading comprehension.

To me, it felt like Reinking was deliberately muddling the definition of literacy. Technology does not change the definition of literacy. Technology just changes the ways and means by which we are literate. Reading may be the same, but the use of a given technology changes the definition of literacy in terms of writing. For instance, typing is something most of us take for granted and can do very easily. But typing is fundamentally different from using a pencil and writing words on paper. With a computer, you have to know where the keys lie on the keyboard; and not just the letters, but the keys that help format a given page or multimedia presentation. I think this is what Reinking meant, summarizing Olson (1994), when he says, “resources of writing” are part of a “culturally defined set of tasks and procedures.” Indeed, the resources are no longer just ink or graphite. Still, the definition of literacy is not going to change conceptually, but conditionally. We will have to increasingly learn new modes of communication with emerging technologies, especially if they become standardized forms of communication in society. Personally, I am interested in the cognitive aspects to literacy, and if there are any significant differences in brain mapping between using digital technology versus traditional “technology.”


One thought on “Notes on a Post-Typographic World

  1. Jason…great writing (as usual). I like your idea of a spectrum…but also I think the difference between digital and traditional can be traced back to our readings of the digital immigrant vs the digital native…remember? The digital immigrant thinks step-by-step in a logical, mathematical (if you will) manner. The digital native (I like to think…) thinks in circular motion and plucks ideas from here or there in fluid motion.

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