Back to the future: An historical perspective on the pendulum-like changes in literacy

Oren Soffer, Yoram Eshet-Alkalai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article focuses on the pendulum-like change in the way people read and use text, which was triggered by the introduction of new reading and writing technologies in human history. The paper argues that textual features, which characterized the ancient pre-print writing culture, disappeared with the establishment of the modern-day print culture and has been "revived" in the digital post-modern era. This claim is based on the analysis of four cases which demonstrate this textual-pendulum swing: (1) The swing from concrete iconic-graphic representation of letters and words in the ancient alphabet to abstract phonetic representation of text in modern eras, and from written abstract computer commands "back" to the concrete iconic representation in graphic user interfaces of the digital era; (2) The swing from scroll reading in the pre-print era to page or book reading in the print era and "back" to scroll reading in the digital era; (3) The swing from a low level of authorship in the pre-print era to a strong authorship perception in the print era, and "back" to a low degree of authorship in the digital era; (4) The swing from synchronic representation of text in both visual and audio formats during the pre-print era to a visual representation only in print, and "back" to a synchronic representation in many environments of the digital era. We suggest that the print culture, which is usually considered the natural and preferred textual environment, should be regarded as the exception.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-59
Number of pages13
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2009


  • Authorship
  • Digital literacy
  • Post-modernity
  • Print
  • Reading
  • Representation
  • Scrolling
  • Sign
  • Symbol
  • Technology
  • Visualization
  • Writing


Dive into the research topics of 'Back to the future: An historical perspective on the pendulum-like changes in literacy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this