Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Third Wave of Literacy

I believe we just entered what I call the Third Wave of Literacy. It’s tough to pinpoint this occurrence exactly – it’s not like anybody blew a whistle – but as I look back from the dizzying technological height of 2010, here are the divisions I can see.

The First Wave

In the first wave, only a very few people could read and write. The ones who could were scholars, priests and magicians. I add Magicians because, if you are in a pre-literate culture, really, what’s the difference between a priest and a magician? (Okay, maybe Magicians get cooler hats.)

The Second Wave

Around the 14th and 15th century the masses started to read. Dante made the very unusual choice to compose the Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin. In 1382, John Wycliffe was heretical enough to translate the Holy Bible into English. And to cap it off, in the 15th century, Gutenberg cranked up his printing press.

The Third Wave

As dramatic and world changing as the Second Wave was, it was still limited. Sure, everyone could read, but only a few could publish. As much as communication media have multiplied throughout the 20th century, a few people were in charge of what got produced/published/broadcasted/distributed. Around 2002, that all changed.

We are living in a time when everyone can consume media and everyone can create and distribute media. In essence, a six year old kid is on the same footing as the Pope, the President of the United States and a book editor. The next email you send can be forwarded to everyone in the world in under a second for free.

The opportunities and the perils of communication have never been greater. Welcome to the communications tsunami that is, the Third Wave of Literacy.

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