Illiterate Intelligentsia?

Learning to read and write is very hard.

It takes years and years of constant practice to train our brains to seamlessly convert a visual pattern of shapes into an internal auditory stream of speech that we can understand. You might not remember how hard it was to learn to read, but if you have kids in elementary school then you know what I am talking about.

Clearly our brains were not designed for this type of task – it is only though force of will that we coerce them to do it.

Teaching reading and writing is similarly difficult. Our societies have developed a class of people dedicated to accomplishing the task. In the USA, we publicly fund an army of 3 million people whose primary function is to teach our kids to be literate members of society. Each one of these teachers has themselves had years of specialized training just to learn how best to teach these skills. We even require them to be licensed like doctors and lawyers.

Compare this to listening and talking – tasks our brains are clearly well suited for.

Verbal auditory creation and comprehension are a built in feature in human brains. We get them for free with no overhead. When we think to ourselves “I need to stop at the store and get milk”, we naturally do it by talking and listening to an internal verbal monologue. We do not create the visual representation of the letters ‘I–N-E-E-D-T-O-….” on an internal screen.

Almost all children learn to talk and listen without any conscious effort at all. Almost all parents are competent at teaching auditory fluency with no formal training.

So why we spend so much time and money and effort learning and teaching and promoting and testing literacy if it is so damn hard and we are so innately bad at it?

For the past 1,000 years, literacy was a fundamental requirement for participation in the intellectual world.

If you wanted to get ahead in this modern world, you needed to learn to read and write good.

The printed (or carved or pressed) word is an amazing technological achievement. I can read a text from 1,000 years ago and/or 10,000 miles away and precisely receive the knowledge the writer embodied. I can even make a copy of the text to take home with me so others can do the same. A single text can reliably disseminate a vast amount of knowledge to millions of people. Compare this to the telephone-game of auditory knowledge passing where you are lucky if you can a full sentence reliably passed on to a dozen friends over the course of a few seconds.

We are great at auditory speech- but it is a horrible medium for information storage and dissemination.

Until very recently literacy was the only reliable way of storing and sharing information. This is why we spend a huge amount of effort teaching people to read and write. It has allowed us to act as a single massive and long-lasting superintelligent Superorganism. No matter how hard it has been to create and master literacy, it was well worth it.

But times are changing…

First there was the invention of the record player that made it possible to store sound and pass it fatefully forward in time. Then came radio which allowed us to widely disseminate sounds across space. Fast forward to today were I have a machine in my pocket that not only can understand my voice and answer back, but simultaneously has instant access to most of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.

It is not hard to imagine a machine in the near future that is a little bit Siri and and a little bit Watson that can instantly answer any question I might have without me needing to read or write at all. Add in a little OrsonEar and it can also be my personal notebook, diary, secretary, and publishing agent.

About half of the books I want to read are already available in Audiobook form. After a few years practice, I can now listen to a book at 2x speed, which is faster than I can read. It is hard work, but I think my comprehension is higher than when I read and I can use my eyes for other things at the same time. I bet if I had started listening to hyper-fast speech when I was a kid and my brain was still pliable, it would be very natural and easy for me to do it now.

There is currently available technology that can automatically convert written text into spoken text so we could potentially listen to *any* written content.This is still a bit rough, but in the near future this will likely produce better output than even having the author read their own work aloud. Audiobooks could become interactive and self-adapting, automatically explaining words and concepts I don’t know, slowing down when they sense that I am having trouble keeping up, and omitting things that I already know. The experience of a good audiobook will grow to resemble a deep yet facile conversation with an expert rather than a passive and effort-full task.

Anyone who has tried the latest versions of Dragon Dictate knows that we have already passed the milestone where speaking is faster and more accurate than writing or typing for the vast majority of people. This trend will continue and accelerate and it seems likely that typing will soon be as useless a skill as cursive penmanship (which, by the way, is still being taught to my kids!).

Looking forward to into our not-so-distant future, will we have any need for literacy?

In 2030, will someone who knows how to read and write be better off than someone who doesn’t?

More importantly, will someone who knows how to read and write be better off than their equivalent selves if they had done something else with the time and brain cells they would have used up learning to read and write?

What else could our kids learn if they had an extra 3,600 hours of learning time during the phase of their lives when their minds are most open and plastic? And what new abilities might we make room for in their minds if we stopped drafting trillions of neurons into service as poorly performing text-to-speech engines?

Personally, I today would not hesitate to forfeit my ability to read and write if I could instead, say, have a deep intuitive understanding of Hilbert Spaces. Or the ability to imagine a polychronon. Or even just be able contemplate the integration of messier primes. These are all visual spacial tasks that my neocortex might well have been able to master if I had not already committed so much of it learning to recognize various series of letter symbols and the complex and arbitrary rules needed to create them.

Maybe it is time to rethink the supremacy of literacy in education and instead look towards creating future generations of thinkers capable of things we (literally) can not imagine…


  1. bigjosh2

    Just saw this interesting related research

    The “visual preference heuristic” suggests that consumers prefer visual to verbal depiction of information in a product assortment. Images produce greater perceptions of variety than text, which is appealing in assortment selection, but can result in choice complexity and overload when choice sets are large and preferences are unknown, suggesting a moderator for Iyengar and Lepper’s results.

    • bigjosh2

      Spritz is certainly interesting. It doesn’t work well for me and the kind of material I read because I often need to pause for a second to think about what I just read. I’d love to build a reading machine that used an eye tracker to automatically adjust the speed of text flowing across the center of your vision. If you started to look more to the right, then it would speed up to bring you back to the center. If you started to look to the left (because you couldn’t keep up) then the text would slow down so you could catch up. It could even be social by seeing where in particular texts people like you have slowed down before, and start slowing down before you even knew you needed to. Finally, you could in A big data feedback to authors so they could see where people were slowing down (to dense? poor wording?) or going extra fast (boring? skimming?) and adjust their texts accordingly.

  2. bigjosh2

    Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?


  3. You sometimes get the wrong prosody from an Audiobook. This just means that the reader did not do thier job well – which is certainly true of many audiobooks today. I once listened to a book about Artifical Intelligence where the reader threw in a pirate “Eyeee!” ever other sentence. Like everything, the bigger the market the wider the variance in quality. Eventually this will not matter when our books will be read to us by AI systems that understand them.
  4. You can slow down when reading hard stuff. This is true and a real issue. Short term maybe we can develop feedback systems that can detect how hard you are listing and slow down when you are slowing down – the way a good teacher will watch the cues from the person they are teaching and speed up when they see head nodding and slow down when they see puzzled looks.
  5. You miss out on the extra info you get from text formatting. This is true and I am a big fan of text formatting as information. Short term I think a good reader can help with this by indicating formatting though tone and pauses. Longer term we will evolve away from having huge static, one way, monolithic blocks of information pushed at us and instead will get info in interactive and adaptive small bites. Think again about a good conversation – even when the flow of information is one way, the giver of the info still breaks it into paragraph sized blocks and then waits for the listen to acknowledge or ask a question. A book (or today’s audiobooks) are like having a conversation with someone who starts talking and doesn’t stop for many many, many hours. We are only stuck with this for historical technological limitations, but going forward there is no reason to stick with it.
  6. bigjosh2

    Counter point:

    One of his studies, published in 2010, found students who listened to an audio version of a text performed worse on a comprehension quiz than students who had read the same text on paper. His work has shown that the freedom to briefly pause in order to reread or consider a sentence sets reading apart from audiobooks.”

    (My) counter-counter points:
    I bet students who are required to take notes while listening to an audio text would perform better than those who read it. It is true that reading generally is a more active activity than listening, although I occasionally that my mind wanders while reading and I can turn several pages before I realize that I am no longer “hearing” what I am reading. So maybe a better effectiveness metric than how much a student comprehended would be amount of comprehension per unit of attention. By this metric my guess is that listening beats both reading and notetaking.

    I agree that reading a book does afford very easy pausing and rewinding compared to current audiobook technologies, but this is a temporary user interface problem that could easily be solved. I can imagine the Audible app monitoring the accelerometers in my Airpods so it can pause the audio if I cock my to the side inquisitively or rewind and repeat the last thought if I shake my head in confusion. Future systems will be more intuitive and be more like a an active conversation where the app will pick up when already know something and skip it, or even restate ideas in a different or more in-depth format when needed.

  7. bigjosh2

    Reading the Brain
    “The human brain was not designed for reading…. but even from a very early age it is exquisitely well organized for speach processing”

  8. bigjosh2

    A counterpoint:

    I’d argue that there are better tools for representing thoughts than text, and he is so used to using text that he can not imagine these potential tools. When you think about a problem, you do not imagine text floating around in your mind. You imagine auditory words and symbols and images. The replacement for text should be as close to these representations as technologically possible.

  9. bigjosh2

    I would expect that the braille market would be the first to give way to Audiobook and other audio-based reading substitutes, but this article claims otherwise.

    “The publishing arm is largely subsidized by what MacDonald called NBP’s “exploding” B2B business producing brochures, tests, textbooks, business cards, airline safety guides, and more.”

    My guess is that this demand is driven more by ADA compliance and signaling than actual end-user usefulness.

    Braille Is Alive, Well, and Ever-Evolving

    Braille Is Alive, Well, and Ever-Evolving

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