The Post-Literate Society

Years ago, a friend who worked in the consulting field with me deplored the growing use of the computer mouse, which he still called a GUI [graphic user interface], as the first step toward a “post-literate” society. At the time, I thought he was over-reacting. Now… I’m not at all sure.

The College Board just released its latest statistics, and the SAT reading test scores for last year’s graduating seniors were the lowest since 1994. That choice of 1994 as a reference point is particularly interesting because, in 1995, the College Board “recentered” the SAT reference point, which had been based on the average scores set in 1941. The practical effect of this “recentering” was to raise the median score by roughly 80 points. That means that last year’s reading scores might well be the worst in far longer than a mere fourteen years.

In addition, just a few weeks ago, the ACT test annual results were released, and ACT officials noted that, according to the test results, only 25% of test takers, again graduating seniors, had the ability to handle college level work.

Add to these data the facts that the number of young adults reading is down by over 40% from those of a generation earlier and the fact that close to 40% of those young adults obtaining graduate advanced degrees have inadequate verbal and reading analysis skills, and my friend’s suggestion that we are headed toward an electronic and post-literate society doesn’t look quite so far-fetched.

Why am I concerned? Besides the fact that fewer readers will result in fewer book sales?


  1. The ability to frame complex thoughts correctly is vital if we wish to retain a semblance of a representative government in a complicated and highly technological society, as is the ability to analyze what others have written and to be able to sort out the misinformation based on understanding and logic, rather than through preconceptions and emotional reactions.
  1. There is a vast difference between emotional responses to an individual on a personal basis, where first impressions are often correct, and emotional responses to complex issues framed simplistically by talking heads and politicians.
  1. Perception and understanding are severely limited if one cannot read quickly and understand well, and those limitations make people more vulnerable to shysters, deceptive business practices, and clever politicians.
  1. Enormous parts of our culture and history will be lost, and most people will not even understand that they have suffered such a loss.
  1. History can be “changed” at will in all-electronic formats. Have people forgotten that Amazon just recently eliminated two electronic books without anyone being able to stop them? What if they’d just altered the text? How many people would even notice? And… if the news is all graphic and auditory… then what?

As for the decline in book sales… well, it will likely be gradual enough that I won’t have to worry about it. The younger authors… that’s another question. Maybe they ought to consider graphic novels as a fall-back.