The New Literate?

Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about printed material.
– Wikipedia

Literacy at its most basic is the ability to read and write. Someone is judged “literate” by what they’ve read or written, and notions of literateness (as opposed to “literacy”) have changed over time. Time was when definitions of literate included study of Latin. Then there was a list of Great Books you had to have read. Today our access to information and knowledge is so vast and overwhelming it’s difficult to suggest a definitive list to define literate.

So literate has evolved. Literacy, however, is still usually defined by the ability to read and write text. What should define literacy today? Hard to believe that a proper definition would stop with words. We’re a visual culture. And the digital revolution has put sophisticated tools of video and image and sound within reach of almost anyone. Six-year-olds make videos. High-schoolers make feature films.

In a culture where sharing media is basic behavior, the ability to create and share multimedia is becoming the new literacy. If you can’t make video or image or sound, you’re at a communications disadvantage. This is not to diss the power of words; great writing is compelling, even more so now, I believe, when so much bad writing abounds.

But I think the new literate goes beyond words, and beyond making video and image and sound. I think code and meta-data are the new new literacy, and that in turn leads to a new literateness. Information and ideas are multi-dimensional. Those who can take dynamic information and mash it up and mix it and find creative ways of presenting it in service of ideas have the possibility of communicating in more compelling ways than with just words or video or image.

I’m not talking about being a developer or software designer. I’m talking about an approach to finding and gathering information and being able to use code to make arguments. In a world where data is fluid and multi-dimensional, the ability to understand code and how to use it to sort that data, arrange it and argue ideas is powerful.

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  1. Gloria says

    Did anyone else follow the QR code to a survey about a Chicano art exhibit in L.A.? A worthy survey, but I was expecting something article-related.

    • says

      Actually, the QR code was part of my point. The code led to an experiment by a group of journalists in gathering audience reaction to an exhibition. This was a project called Engine29 that I recently helped run at USC in thinking about new ways of doing arts journalism.

  2. D. T. says

    This is, then, a kind of long-term project, because it will take several more generations to arrive at a populace that is fully literate, by your definition. And, beyond the widely used technologies (most of them extremely user-friendly and simple) that most people use, who is going to disseminate the kind of new knowledge you hope for? And will those who haven’t got it (read: poor people, old people, people in developing countries) be denied work–a trend inn the offing, by the way–or social approval or other benefits?

    Our society can’t even ensure basic literacy. Talk to any professor, or editor above the age of 40, or a writer, and you’ll hear something about people’s declining ability to follow simple arguments, not to mention simple mechanics of language and thinking.

    So, your very interesting idea is tantalizing, but also dispiriting, given the gaps between your ideal and real life.

    • says

      I’m not sure I think of it as an “ideal.” I think it just is. Some people have always had more resources to communicate with than others. And it’s not always about opportunity either. One has only to look at what the political pundits call “low information voters” to see lack of motivation for learning about the world. (And that’s not to disparage those who choose not to learn about something – there are plenty of things to know about and you can’t know them all). Just as great writing isn’t the common currency of all, this dynamic literacy won’t be universal.

      But the fact is that those who learn to think about information in a more liquid way and are able to use snippets of code to mix it the ways they want have an advantage over those who are confined to static display. More than that – I think it’s actually a more nimble way of thinking about information and how you construct convincing argument. maybe those who become adept at this are the new journalists. I don’t know.

      As to your last point about people not being able to follow simple arguments. I myself am well north of 40, but I seem to encounter plenty of young, media-literate and sophisticated people who have figured out how to communicate with precision.

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