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July 07, 2015 •

Terrifying Robot Dog is an excellent futurist/technologist podcast by Kelli Shaver and Jonathan Stark. This past week they discussed Amazon Echo and its Alexa natural language processing (NLP) software.

As they point out, Alexa and its siblings (Siri, Cortana, and Ok Google) bring us closer to conversational computing. Rodenberry Star Trek shit. There’s an interesting twist in the discussion as to whether or not these Invisible UIs are leading us down the path to a Post-Literate Society.

A quote from the show:

“I can absolutely imagine a scenario in which mass literacy is just a historical blip; something that started in in the 19th century and lasted until the middle of the 21st. Technology could easily make the ability to decode text irrelevant.”
Kate Wilson, Nosey Crow

The concept of a Post-Literate Society fills me with both shock and awe. I mean, I know that no one really reads the Internet, so I build apps and sites to be obvious and cater to that instinct. And the meteoric rise of Instagram and BuzzFeed would seem to lend confirmation as well. But are we already sliding down that slope? Have we fulfilled Doug Engelbart’s fears that “user friendly” always beats “learnable”. Is literacy becoming unnecessary?

It’s a lot to think about and it doesn’t necessarily fill me with hope for humanity.

My only counter argument is from Star Trek. If in the future conversational computing is the norm, what is Jean-Luc doing reading a tablet in the Captain’s Quarters? (Don’t say porn, don’t say porn.) Why not have the computer read back only the necessary information? I wonder if some people, say visual or solitary learners, will always rely on more intimate, visual “decoding”.