I’ve written another essay for the marvellous Aeon magazine, exploring a topic close to my heart: how the act of typing onto screens – and the sheer number of people now actively involved in doing this – is changing language and identity. The first few paras are below, the rest on the Aeon magazine site.
At some point int he past two million years, give or take half a million, the genus of great apes that would become modern humans crossed a unique threshold. Across unknowable reaches of time, they developed a communication system able to describe not only the world, but the inner lives of its speakers. They ascended — or fell, depending on your preferred metaphor — into language.
The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.
Mass literacy is a phenomenon of the past few centuries, and one that has reached the majority of the world’s adult population only within the past 75 years. In 1950, UNESCO estimated that 44 per cent of the people in the world aged 15 and over were illiterate; by 2012, that proportion had reduced to just 16 per cent, despite the trebling of the global population between those dates. However, while the full effects of this revolution continue to unfold, we find ourselves in the throes of another whose statistics are still more accelerated.
In the past few decades, more than six billion mobile phones and two billion internet-connected computers have come into the world. As a result of this, for the first time ever we live not only in an era of mass literacy, but also — thanks to the act of typing onto screens — in one of mass participation in written culture…