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Literacy campaign is a sound investment;Another Voice;Opinion

OF ALL the issues and campaigns I have been involved with over the years from the Grange Hill Just Say No anti-drugs campaign to the domestic violence issue in Brookside's Jordache saga, none has been so rewarding as the recent Brookie Basics literacy campaign attached to the National Year of Reading.

I cannot see any downside to this campaign. The results are almost immediately identifiable as, just three weeks after the launch, there have been nearly 4,000 calls to the helpline. The campaign is not about a slow conversion of ideas or perceptions, but simply giving people the skills to change their own lives. It is a marvellous example of that over-used term, empowerment.

It is interesting that at the end of the 20th century we, as a nation, are facing a similar challenge to that posed at the end of the 19th century. Then, the aftermath of the industrial revolution was a technological wave that swept across the world, raising both industrial and agricultural output that fuelled rapid population growth and wealth creation.

The challenge was how to raise literacy levels of workers to keep up with these enormous changes and allow continued expansion. Out of this came the foundations of an educational system we now take for granted as a right of individual development rather than an industrial investment.

At the end of the 20th century we face a similar challenge, but if the technological changes of the 19th century could be classed as a wave, what we are facing now is nothing less than digital tsunami.

Yet the parallel with the previous century is not perfect. Then, the expectations were probably less. Coming out of a period of history when mortality was classed in years rather than decades, the demands of the population per se were probably less. Today the average aspirational levels, as well as expected lifespan, have increased enormously.

It is important to grasp that the next technological revolution, the digital age, is not yet upon us. It is very close but the full impact is still some years away. What we are seeing around us, from digital television to mobile video-phones, are the early stumblings as people search for the right path to apply the potential of this new technology.

Take television, telephones and computers. There is much use of the term "convergence", the bringing together of these three once separate technologies. But the important issue will not be whether you can speak to your friends on your television set, or whether you can watch your favourite TV programme on your phone, or even order a pizza on your PC. The real impact will be on the built environment. Our social interaction and the amount of time that will be freed from the drudgery of day-to-day existence.

Just as in the 19th century as technology started to displace people from repetitive labour, the working hours started to reduce and transport cut down travel times to and from work, people will find more time on their hands - whether they want it or not.

Home shopping in the digital age will not be about the stuff we like doing, like buying clothes or cars where the tactile experience is so much part of the experience, but it will be about displacing the trudge around a supermarket to pick up the basics.

Who really likes shopping for baked beans and toilet rolls? That will all be done by technology, whether through customer profiles established by the supermarket databases or simple regular-ordering systems. The drudge stuff will be delivered and direct- debited. So what will people want to do with that free time? What will they be able to do?

The future digital age will really be about the increasing pace of knowledge transfer. How ideas now travel in seconds when once they took years. As the pace increases so does the rate of transfer and the potential. You must be literate to keep up, let alone take advantage of it. In fact, with most of the new-generation video equipment you cannot get by now by enlisting a child's help - you need a higher-education qualification.

To get the best out of the new computer-based world will require literacy levels, whether that be at home or at work. That is why I am always keen to support any such initiative, as I have been for the past 20 years.

In fact, 10 years ago I supported a scheme launched by the National Institute of Adult Education called Working Through Words with the aim of helping unemployed people develop their literacy skills. It was based on a series of writers' workshops of the type that Jimmy McGovern emerged from, and at the launch I made the same point I did at the launch of Brookie Basics. There are three things that drive society forward - people, their ideas, and ability to implement those ideas.

Literacy is such an important tool in that process. It is not simply an altruistic endeavour, but a legacy derived from the end of the last century. Raising literacy levels is not a charitable act, it is a sound investment in our shared future.

Phil Redmond is chairman of Mersey Television and creator of Brookside

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