Extension 2050: The Postliterate Age

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Extension in the year 2050. The posts discuss themes that emerged in a conversation about the future of Extension. So far, I’ve written about contextualized information, the trend toward open and working within networks.

I’ve been struggling with this post for a couple of months. Post-literacy emerged as a theme in the conversation referenced above, but I’m still trying to make sense of it. Is it purely hypothetical as it is described on Wikipedia?

“A postliterate society is a hypothetical society in which multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read or write, is no longer necessary or common” -Wikipedia

Is post-literacy old news? Are we already living in a post-literate society as Marshal McLuhan described it almost 40 years ago?

What’s the relationship between print literacy, media literacy and digital literacy? Is post-literacy emergent or, as mentioned in the conversation below, has reading in America been dead for 90 years?

I’ll continue making sense of post-literacy because I believe it is an important theme in the future of Extension. As part of academia, much of Cooperative Extension’s information delivery and virtually all of it’s library is alphabet-based. What happens if the majority of people become incapable or, at least, uninterested in consuming information through reading? Academia can exist (does exist?) talking only to each other, but Extension, by definition, must converse with “the public,” and “the public” has largely devalued alphabet-based information.

13 minutes before the start of the 2016 NFL Draft, a video was released of offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil smoking marijuana through a gas mask. The morning after, several analysts talked about how the fact that there was video of the incident influenced the public perception. They noted, correctly in my opinion, that had this incident been detailed in an alphabet-based medium, without the video, the public would have largely dismissed it.

This is more than “seeing is believing.” It’s more like “seeing is caring.”

If so much of Extension continues to alphabet-based, can we remain (become?) relevant? Is there any hope of moving away from alphabet-based information if Extension remains part of academia?


  1. Enjoyed your post. While my view of post-literacy sees the decline of reading and writing as the dominant literacy, I think it goes well beyond simply video (i.e. the rise of the image over the word). Advances in neuro prosthetics and machine intelligence (to cite just two) are re-imagining what we think of literacy practices. You might be interested in the e-book I wrote with a number of graduate students a few years ago: Beyond Literacy: Exploring a Post-Literate Future http://www.BeyondLiteracy.com


    • Mike, thanks for your comment. I’m definitely still working on a deeper understanding of post-literacy and what it means to our work in Cooperative Extension in the U.S. I’m excited to read your e-book. Thanks so much for sharing it.