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How Do You Feel if You Can't Read?

Reading, the Digital Revolution, loneliness, love, sex, jealousy and boredom

Innotata using CommonsHelper.
The original Digital Revolution, a bookwheel, from Agostino Ramelli's "Le diverse et artifiose machine," 1588.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Original uploader was Geethree at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Innotata using CommonsHelper.

“He’ll never be able to get his drivers license.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He can’t read,” came the blunt response.

The response wasn’t intended as a put down. It was meant as a statement of fact. That was 30 odd years ago and my work-mate was completely illiterate. You really had to be able to read properly to pass your driver’s test in those days. The instruction book was a print-heavy tome.

You don’t hear that sort of thing so much anymore. When I moved to Canada not so long ago and had to retake my test, I found that there wasn't the same amount of reading and writing involved in driving exams. The theory test was based as much on audio-visual cues that mimic real-life situations. You could memorize the shape of words like STOP and END and DANGER if you needed to. And in some regions, I believe, you can take an adapted test orally.

Cold comfort for my comrade. Last time I saw him he was still riding his bike. But that was a long time ago. He may have changed. What haven’t changed are literacy levels. There are still plenty of people in the position of my former work-mate. I live in Canada, which has, it’s claimed, very high literacy levels. Calgary is an oil and gas hub and a fairly high-tech city. You’d expect literacy to be reasonably high here. But it’s not especially so.

The figures to follow are from 2003 and are taken from the International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (IALSS). The numbers, the most recent, illustrate the proportion of the adult population (16 and over) with a low level of prose literacy. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) understands a “low level of prose literacy” as meaning that your reading skills fall within the first two of five levels of the literacy scale.

The OECD describes the skills of Levels 1 and 2 like this: “Level 1—Very poor literacy skills. An individual at this level may, for example, be unable to determine from a package label the correct amount of medicine to give a child. Level 2—A capacity to deal only with simple, clear material involving uncomplicated tasks. People at this level may develop everyday coping skills, but their poor literacy makes it hard to conquer challenges such as learning new job skills.”

Here are the literacy figures:

Calgary, AB 35%

Montréal, QC 50%

Ottawa – Gatineau, ON 39%

Toronto, ON 50%

Vancouver, B.C. 41%


About half, or a little less, of the individuals within each of the percentages for the five cities will be Level 1 literate or lower. Half, or a little above, will read at Level 2. Calgary, at 35%, does pretty badly. But look at Toronto at 50%. And look at that remarkable 48% of all Canadians who are said by the IALSS to be as good as functionally illiterate.

You read a lot these days about how we have moved our lives on-line – and how this has shaped our responses to certain emotions. It’s said that we display our lives through Facebook,Instagram, and Twitter. We share our lives through email and texts. We even live our lives through the many on-line dating agencies such as Tinder. Some of us look on-line in advance for good deals for our funerals.

But if 48% of Canadians are as good as functionally illiterate, then their capacity to move their lives on-line, in the way I’ve described, is delimited by their capacity to read. Email is a problem if you have trouble reading. So is texting. Wikipedia, where lots of people go for quick facts, is not much use to you. And even Facebook is a text-reliant medium. It’s that “we” that’s so bothersome. With 48% of Canadians functionally illiterate, then their capacity to move their lives on-line is sorely limited. There’s no such thing as “we” or “our”.

Here is where the nature of our emotions comes into the picture. There is an awful lot of discussion asserting that the digital revolution is changing the way “we” experience loneliness, jealousy, boredom, sexual desire, and all of the other passive emotional states that can be fed through a screen. Loneliness is on the up because people spend too much time on their own glued to consoles. Boredom is up because we need but can’t always get a constant fix of digital excitement. Or is it down because we can? Jealousy is up because the social media display so much of what others have and that we don’t have. The display could even be of your beloved with someone else. And it’s been argued that couples are having less sex each month because they share their beds with smart phones. They make love three times per month now rather than the regulation four.

The digital revolution, it seems, is affecting people’s lives in an unparalleled manner. Emotional reactions are becoming blunted or sharpened in ways that may have no parallel since the Gutenberg printing revolution. This may well be true. But it’s probably not true for the 48% of Canadians who don’t read well enough to avail themselves of many of the features of the Digital Revolution. (It cannot be too different in the US. I know that it is no different in my native Australia.) I suspect as well, though this is only a suspicion, that you can remove from the 52% of people who have the capacity to be digitally literature, those who are over 65 or so. Being connected is less of an issue for the retired.

The fruits of the Digital Revolution are spread unevenly. That’s the conclusion to this piece. The many prognostications stating that our emotional states are changing radically, or at least a certain amount, are based on a hard to sustain belief that we are all equally literate. I really wish we were. But we are not. If you can believe IALSS’s figures then we are not all beneficiaries or victims of the Digital Revolution.

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