The History of Literacy, and the Future of 'Code Literacy'

In the latest Mother Jones, Tasneem Raja argues that “code literacy” is becoming just as critical as reading and writing in education. To understand how we as a society might begin to take it seriously, it also helps to understand the history of literacy itself:

Reading and writing have become what researchers have called “interiorized” or “infrastructural,” a technology baked so deeply into everyday human life that we’re never surprised to encounter it. It’s the main medium through which we connect, via not only books and papers, but text messages and the voting booth, medical forms and shopping sites. If a child makes it to adulthood without being able to read or write, we call that a societal failure.

Yet for thousands of years writing was the preserve of the professional scribes employed by the elite. So what moved it to the masses? In Europe at least, writes literacy researcher Vee, the tipping point was the Domesday Book, an 11th-century survey of landowners that’s been called the oldest public record in England.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror to take stock of what his new subjects held in terms of acreage, tenants, and livestock so as to better tax them, royal scribes fanned across the countryside taking detailed notes during in-person interviews. It was like a hands-on demo on the efficiencies of writing, and it proved contagious. Despite skepticism—writing was hard, and maybe involved black magic—other institutions started putting it to use. Landowners and vendors required patrons and clients to sign deeds and receipts, with an “X” if nothing else. Written records became admissible in court. Especially once Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, writing seeped into more and more aspects of life, no longer a rarefied skill restricted to a cloistered class of aloof scribes but a function of everyday society.

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Photo: worldbank, flickr