Apr 23, 2014

Public text and ubiquitous literacy

Image: Yin Liu (Wisconsin, USA, 2013)
Up until a couple of centuries ago, a sign like this (which happens to proclaim the availability of cheese, and more generic food, in rural Wisconsin), would have been not only unlikely but also mostly pointless. For there would be no sense in putting up the word ‘CHEESE’ by the side of the road, visible to all, if very few people could read it.

One of the most deeply influential social transformations of the 19th century, especially in the West, was the creation of literate societies – that is, societies in which a majority of people could be expected to read and write, and therefore in which public textuality could be functional and ubiquitous. If you are reading this, chances are almost certain that you live in a world of text, and that you perform countless acts of reading every day, not just because you want to but because you are required to do so to function in a literate society. Every time you buy a package of food, or travel down a road, or surf the Web, you are expected to read. The technology of writing has become so powerful and foundational that we find it very difficult to imagine a world without writing, or a world in which writing plays a very small and specialised role.

Apr 14, 2014

Calculation to communication

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY 2.5
Do you remember when mobile phones were actually used as telephones? That is, people put them next to their heads and used them to talk to other people at a distance. But now, of course, your mobile phone (unless you have a very very cheap model) does a lot of other things as well. Phones are used as cameras, maps, notebooks, recipe collections, timekeeping devices, compasses, flashlights, mirrors, radios and audio players, reading platforms, organisers, entertainment centres, tourist guides . . . At some point, a significant transition took place when a tool designed for one use (real-time voice transmission over distance) acquired other uses. These shifts in technology use can be deeply transformative, not only affecting the physical design of the technology so used but also the social practices related to that technology. However, shifts in technology use are often overlooked when we focus simply on ‘inventions’ – the physical devices themselves – without considering what people actually do with them.