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