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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Reading and Writing Yourself Free

By Ooi Kee Beng, Editorial for Penang Monthly, November 2018.

The basis for human liberty as we understand it today was laid with the advent of universal literacy. When reading and writing stopped being the sole right of royal scribes and religious leaders in a given society, and when vernacular languages – i.e. languages actually spoken and heard in daily life – gained the right to be written down and read; not only did humanity’s collective knowledge become universally accessible, the link between literacy and power began crumbling.

In tandem with that, literacy as access to divinity began collapsing as well, as the magic associated with thought transmission through sight instead of sound, through scribbling instead of speaking, faded away. “Holy Books” gradually came into question. In the West, the right to individual interpretation of religious texts broke the back of the Catholic Church in the early sixteenth century; and in the Far East, the Confucian Classics lost their almighty centuries-old status as the imperial system collapsed in the early twentieth century. In the Muslim world, the inbuilt tension between individual readings and cleric interpretations of the 1,400-year-old tome continues to be a major struggle.

The mystique of literacy, of the ability of the literate to retrieve ideas from, and to pass on beliefs on lasting parchment instead of fleeting hearsay, began dissipating. The populace, in learning – in gaining the right – to transform their thoughts into writeable and readable words, could now see through the veil and wool of deception that the Crown and the Church had pulled over their eyes and ears.

This is a profound evolution – indeed, it is a revolution – in human liberation that has been so successful that we seldom give it any thought today. We now take it for granted that we do not simply speak and listen in order to communicate and to learn; but we also write and read as if by second nature.

The Literacy Gap

The fact that literacy began as a privilege assumed by the religious and political elite and remained so for centuries throughout the world before it slowly became a popular ability, left deep marks in human history. This Literacy Gap’s long-term effects remain expressed in deep class divides and continue affecting how we relate to spiritual matters.

Literature became a popular phenomenon through which subtler ideas and experiences could be passed on to people from other times and from other places. Libraries, dictionaries and thesauruses became the obvious icons of literacy in homes and in nations. All these define modern culture.

But the Literacy Revolution, being a revolution, put tremendous and persistent pressure onto individuals and societies alike. Just as hearing does not necessarily lead to speaking (children were, and are, after all, supposed to be seen and not heard), reading as a means to access knowledge does not necessarily lead to writing. In both cases, there is, to put it crudely, an intellectual constipation caused perhaps by the fact that the speaker and the writer have unmentioned power over the listener and the reader. While hearing and reading are a partaking of the thoughts of others, speaking and writing are potentially a proactive and participatory act of freedom.

The Digital Skills Gap

The democratisation of the world over the last two centuries has seen universal education spread across practically all countries. Literacy is now a human right. Over the last two decades, the Internet and Social Media Tsunami seems to have gotten people who once may have liked reading but would not think of ever writing, to start texting and sharing messages on their digital devices.

The democratisation of communication has taken a new leap, but with that, a new tension appears – in the form of a Digital Skills Gap. ICT innovations over the last few decades have been so thorough and pervasive that they have been disrupting, and will continue to disrupt, most aspects of society, of productivity and of power relations. Some will indeed blaze on top, and some will sputter to the bottom.

The rush is now on in each person, each nation and each corporation to raise digital literacy to their better advantage. The battle for access to information seems to be an eternal one, and remains the same as in the early days of reading and writing.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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