When Gutenberg invented the printing press, a lot of people thought it was going to ruin everything. What would happen to peoples’ memories if they could just look things up in a book? And besides, common people should be kept in their place. If they wanted information, they should be obliged to go to their master or their priest.
We face a similar attitude today when it comes to the Digital Culture. Many educators and commentators claim that it’s demolishing attention spans and destroying peoples’ ability to absorb written material. They fear that digital technology is creating a generation of cultural illiterates.
But it seems to me the larger question is this: what exactly is cultural literacy? Obviously it‘s something defined within very sharp boundaries of time, geography, and history. For example, an aborigine in Australia and a librarian in New York City might both be considered culturally literate within their own milieus. But how good would the librarian be at finding water in the Outback? And how successful would the aborigine be at using an online card catalogue?
Colleges and universities delight in their role as arbiters of cultural literacy. But if you’ve read the course descriptions in a few college catalogues, it’s clear that the mumbo-jumbo of the academic world has a fatal similarity to the flabby, marshmallow dialects of corporate and political bureaucracies. Honesty and directness are sidestepped completely—blandness and political correctness rule as banality comes to a slow boil in an unsavory, polysyllabic stew.
It’s my belief that the true architects of cultural literacy are the doers and the makers, the designers, inventors and creators—the people who forge the new vocabulary and create the new syntax. We only have to read about the events of the day in a newspaper or online to see that the most dynamic energies of our culture flow through science and technology and media as well as the printed word. It’s clear to me that by definition cultural literacy by its very nature is multivalent. The ability to grasp the contents of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is on equal footing with the ability to grasp 300 lines of code in a Java app. To choose one over the other shows the worst kind of cultural bias.
In the beginning of human history it was tool making that separated our species from so many long extinct competitors. And tools are more than the handmade variety. After all, language is the ultimate tool—it allows concepts and ideas to be explained and shared. And science and technology are the logical by-products of language and our tool making culture.
Programming languages are arguably the most extreme development of tool making. Just as biological evolution tilted in favor of those early humans with flint chipping abilities, natural selection and the biological imperative of the 21st Century will tilt toward those with an innate feeling for digital culture and the language of machines.
It is interesting to speculate on what will happen over the next millennium. Will an entirely new species emerge, eclipsing Homo sapiens? Is the human race as we know it moving toward extinction, facing a die-off similar to that of the Neanderthals? And what will mankind’s successor call itself? My suggestion would be Homo Programmatis.