Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Notes towards a literacy for the digital age

by Milverton Wallace

The kid enters the coffee shop and is greeted excitedly by her friends. They jostle to exchange high fives, knuckle greetings and finger snaps with her.

What is the cause of their admiration? Her Rocaway jeans? Her high tan Jimmy Choo boots? Her Armani sun-glasses? Her Karl Lagerfeld jacket? Nah! It's the gleaming silver object dangling from a pair of white wires plugged into her ears.

It’s an iPod, the must-have digital gadget of today's young people. With this tiny digital audio player Apple stole Napster's thunder and replaced the CD player as the cutting-edge portable music player of choice.

But if you think this is just another device for playing pre-recorded music, think again. Within two years of the iPod's debut, developers had created software to allow anyone to produce audio content –- words and music -- for it and other portable digital players. This technology, known as podcasting, turns consumers into producers, and every wannabe DJ and talk-show host into broadcasters. It's a distribution channel that plugs directly into the hippest, hottest communication network on the planet.

In advanced industrial countries, and increasingly in less-developed regions, social life is being digitised. Cheap camera phones and videocams allow everyday activities to be recorded and stored on personal computers or online services; more and more conversations are conducted via email, IM and SMS; private thoughts, opinions and reflections on public affairs or private passions are instantly posted on weblogs. Because they are in digital form, all these different types of record -- moving images, photographs, sounds and texts -- can be stored on computers. And the Internet makes it possible for all of this to be shared with family, friends and strangers.

Welcome to the agora of the 21st century, a space where a diverse array of digital modes of communication intersect in cyberspace -- email, instant messaging, text messaging, multimedia messaging, weblogging, audioblogging, moblogging, mobcasting, podcasting.

Like it or not, this is the new cultural landscape for learning, entertainment, and communicating with each other. And it is being constructed without consultation with, or permission from, regulatory authorities or self-appointed gatekeepers.

All well and good, but what is the point of all this digital g-soup when school-leavers can't spell and do sums, or believe Winston Churchill was an insurance salesman? Relax. This isn't the end of literacy, just a groping towards a new kind of literacy which is capable of fulfilling the knowledge acquisition, informational and cultural needs of the digital age.

There is nothing immutable about the mental and manual competencies that constitute literacy. What it means to be literate has constantly changed throughout the ages as economic, social and cultural necessities impose new demands on the population. In addition, the number and classes of people which needed to possess these competencies have changed. In ancient Egypt, the ability to read and write, and therefore to manage the state, was a monopoly of the priestly caste and court officials. On the other hand, the assembly, the council and the court, the key institutions of the first democracy in Athens, championed by the literate Pericles, were made up primarily of ordinary people1 who were mostly educated in the oral, not the literate, culture of 5th century BC Greece. In both cases the vast majority of the people did not need to be literate; you didn't need reading, writing and arithmetic to be a farmer, an artisan or a soldier2. The same was true in the ancient Chinese, Persian, Babylonian and Roman empires.

The industrial age changed everything. The mass manufacturing of goods, the introduction of machine tools and the technologising of ancient craft skills required a work force which could read, write, and do sums. The ceaseless need to innovate in order to remain competitive forced workers to think critically and creatively about the industrial processes in which they were engaged. This led them to invent new goods and technologies to feed the insatiable engine of industrial capitalism. For the first time in human history, education, both literary and technical, became a job requirement.

Thus the invention of printing was a pre-requisite of the industrial age3. Mechanical reproduction of texts was superseded by mass production of books and newspapers to satisfy the growing need for widespread diffusion of the elements of literacy required for industrial production and social advancement.

Mass production of information and knowledge produced the mass media which, by the end of the 19th century, became a monolith that controlled access to information about everyday life. Other information monopolies arose during the period, most based on close and exclusive control of specialised knowledge: trade guilds, which regulated the transmission of craft skills; learned societies and associations, which regulated access to scientific information and entry into the professions. These and other institutions were important in codifying and regulating the competencies which powered industrial production and commerce. However, the mass media occupy a special place because of their central role in the organisation and control of social communications, and hence the structure of cultural, political and economic life4.

The trouble with monopolies is not only that they tend to centralise power, but they also wield this power to enforce their definitions of reality on the world. So the scientific establishment decrees that a particular body of knowledge is "science", and everything else is hocus-pocus; the medical authorities declare that a favoured corpus of practices is "medicine", and all others are quackery; and the teaching profession holds that literacy is the three "Rs", and evermore shall it be.

But these edicts are losing their force and authority as people first challenge the information/knowledge monopolies and then develop their own communication media to find things out for themselves and explore truths other than received wisdom or the official version. Rather than the established media talking to them, people are talking to one another in their own self-created space, their own time and at their own speed5.

To participate in creating this autonomous space, you must possess not only the print literacy of the industrial age but also the competencies required to engage in online conversations and be at ease with using 21st century digital products and services.

What are the competencies that should be included in any model of literacy for the digital age?

First, you should get used to interacting with screen-based devices for sending, receiving and viewing digital information because this is the way one interacts with the interface -- the collection of words, icons, buttons, menus, and other symbols -- connecting the user to the database which stores the data and the network which transmits it. To interact with your computers, mobile phones, PDAs, media players etc requires that you have the knowledge to understand these symbols and the tactile skills to manipulate them to achieve a desired purpose e.g., open a document, save a file, view a picture, play a song, send a message.

Second, you must be able to create a document, store it and retrieve it at a later date. By "document" is meant any information element or object in digital form -- words, pictures, sounds, still and moving images.

Third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the theory and practice of hypermedia6, because it is in this space that information is communicated on the screens of computers and digital media devices. A paper document allows only text and two dimensional images, while radio and television have been completely linear media. The hypermedia document, now the standard form in which information is displayed and communicated, is changing all that. By allowing interaction with non-linear, multi-dimensional documents to take place, it has radically altered the practice of reading and writing.

Hypermedia is the electronic palette on which diverse information objects -- texts, still and moving images and sound -- combine. Cross-referencing devices called hyperlinks allow us to create a non-linear mode of information production and consumption which more closely follows the patterns of thought. Hyperlinks are gateways to other "objects" -- click on one and the desired object is retrieved and played. This is the typical organisation of a Web document.

But some features of a hypermedia document are counter-intuitive (or, at least, contrary to the processes we have learned through paper-age education) and so require new literacies in order to make sense of the message.

For example, a key feature of a hypermedia composition is that all objects have equal status. They can therefore be read -- and possibly understood -- in any order, so you can enter the hypermedia space at any point, and structure your reading of the story in any manner you choose. As a result, each individual reading experience is different, as are the connections and associations made.

We have to learn how to use this space, to make sense of it. How do we critically evaluate what we see and hear? How do we assign weight and significance to the objects? Clearly, we need to learn to use a range of tools to help us evaluate the accuracy, authority, completeness, bias and timeliness of the information.

This goes against much that we know about written communication since the invention of the codex, the form of the book that succeeded the scroll as the repository of written knowledge and culture.

The codex transformed the way texts were written -- introducing page numbers, chapters, indexing -- and therefore the way authors constructed their work. It also changed the reading process: readers could now navigate from one page to another with ease, quickly find specific items, mark passages for future reference, and write while reading. The codex introduced a linear order and sequence in which texts are to be read and understood and an hierarchy of elements -– title page, imprint, contents page, preface, introduction, main body, references, bibliography, appendices. To be literate meant understanding these elements and what they signify.

The book is both receptacle and transmitter of knowledge. The change in its material form, from scroll to codex, engendered a revolution in writing and reading. People had to learn new skills in order to produce and consume information and knowledge in the new form. The same is the case with the change to a screen-based, hypertext form of information and knowledge creation and dissemination, with one big difference.

The move from an oral to a literary culture was a drastic change from social, collective learning to private, individual learning; from the primacy of the voice to the primacy of the text; from understanding of the world through public performances and storytelling to understanding through private reading and personal reflection. Now these two modes are united in cyberspace as hypermedia combines almost all aspects of oral and literary cultures. Every minute of every day the Internet buzzes with the sound of music and of voices in many tongues; with animations and videos in glorious technicolor; with words and pictures; with the colour of magic, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke7.

Here is the genius of cyberspace: it has created a world of endless possibilities by refusing to be constrained by what went before.

In most cosmologies, the world begins with the Word. In the pre-industrial and industrial eras, two expressions of the Word, reading and writing, have been central to people's notion of literacy. Digital technology doesn't abolish literacy; what it augurs is a radical re-definition of it. This is nothing new -- we have been here before. Think of the momentous, world-changing shift from oral to print culture; think also of the changes in writing instruments (stone, stick, pen), writing materials (bark, leaf, clay tablet, parchment, paper), text production processes (from handwriting to hot-metal printing, from lithography to laser printing) and the intellectual and technical adjustments required to deal with them.

As the digitisation of economic, social and cultural life gathers pace, those who embrace and internalise the literacy of the digital age will be so much better off than those who do not.

So if you are an educator, desperate to interest our iPod kid and her friends in your remedial classes; a health information officer anxious to get the message of safe sex to her and her cohorts; a training instructor eager to recruit them on a job skills programme; get familiar with their world. You won't be able to communicate with them if you don't.

© Milverton Wallace 2005.


1) See C. L. R. James, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Correspondence, 2 (12) June 1956.

2) Even if they wanted to acquire literacy, they couldn’t. Only rich individuals and families could afford to buy books. Papyrus and parchment, the materials on which most books in Europe were written until the introduction of paper from China (via Korea, Japan, India, Baghdad and Damascus) in the 12th century AD, were scarce and expensive commodities. Moreover, several ingredients—the technique of papermaking, the invention of printing, the spread of religion, public education and libraries, the development of the scientific method, the Industrial Revolution etc--had to come together before mass literacy became possible, desirable and necessary for societies. And it took more than two thousand years after the first flowering of Athenian democracy for these conditions to become a reality. (Note that the fabled ancient libraries at Nineveh, Alexandria, Pergamum and Herculaneum were for the use of clerics, scholars and rulers, not the masses).

3) See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1982) for an excellent treatment of the way the spread of printing contributed to the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, and, therefore, modern liberal democracies and the industrial society.

4) See Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (University of Toronto Press, 1972) and The Bias of Communication (University of Toronto Press, 1964) for a discussion of the relationship between the dominant mode and technical properties of communication and the social, political and economic organisation of society. Innis argues that fundamental changes in social structures come about when the old, dominant form of communication is challenged and replaced by new forms.

5) Dan Gillmor, former technology columnist on the San Jose Mercury News, describes this movement in the arena of news gathering and dissemination as "citizen journalism". See his book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (O'Reilly Media, 2004).

6)) Jakob Nielsen, Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond (AP Professional, 1995).

7) "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Quoted in Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz, 1999).
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