According to the Oxford English Dictionary, literacy is defined as possessing “the quality or state of being literate; knowledge of letters; condition in respect to education, esp. ability to read and write” 1 while literate, as an adjective is defined as one “acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned.”2 Considering these definitions together, it should be noted that literacy is something acquired or learned, not a birthright or circumstance. Thus implications of literacy in relation to technology and media are fundamental, because just as one has to learn how to read and write letters, one has to learn how to use and interact with technology.
Primarily, in our society, we consider literacy as the ability to read and write using the alphabet as a skill we obtain through our education system. There are no restrictions on who should or should not be able to read and write. In fact, literacy is a necessity in order to participate in almost all functions of society. To further develop the fundamental aspect of literacy, UNESCO provides their definition as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.”3 Similarly, outside of the realm of a static and conventional textual literacy are cultural and technological literacy, where communication through interpretation is a critical aspect. Moreover, these other literacies are dynamic and constantly evolving. Thus it is not as simple as learning how to recognize letters and words or knobs and wires. Instead, ever adapting levels of comprehension must be applied to various contexts.
Early Tang Dynasty China is credited for the invention of the block printing press while ceramic movable type was an innovation of Bi Sheng in the Song dynasty. This, however, did not lead to the kind of widespread literacy we encounter during the Industrial Revolution in the West. In fact, only the Imperial government benefited from such developments. As Baudrillard neatly summarizes in his critical essay on McLuhan’s Understanding Media, conventional mass textual literacy, was historically “inaugurated by the movable type of Gutenberg, it is typographic technology, based on the phonetic alphabet, on blocks and visualization. In rationalizing all the procedures of communication according to the principles of continuity, uniformity, and repeatability, it overthrows tribal organization of oral structures of communication.”4 And prior to the Industrial Revolution, which brought the proliferation of inexpensively produced books and print-media, only the wealthy were privileged to a formal education. Mass-literacy, or the Age of Literacy, was a 19th century, Western phenomenon.
Cultural literacy, including visual arts and literature, is only possible with an ability to decipher beyond what is represented. For example, during the 15th century, Flemish paintings were loaded with objects that iconographically stood for something else. In other words, subject manner or meaning is privileged over form. As Panovsky argued in 1939, “[i]conographical analysis, dealing with images, stories and allegories instead of with motifs, presupposes, of course, much more than that familiarity with specific themes or concepts as transmitted through literary sources, whether acquired by purposeful reading or by oral tradition.”5 In that regard, it is not enough to be able to recognize the image, but to have an already instilled familiarity with the meaning and themes behind by objects and events. Thus, cultural literacy also requires an interpretive element that is established through continuous acquisition of background knowledge.
McLuhan argues that we have exited the Gutenberg Age of Literacy and entered into the Electric Age where “…new electric technology… threatens this ancient technology of literacy built on the phonetic alphabet [and b]ecause of its action in extending out central nervous system, electric technology seems to favor the inclusive and participational spoken word over the specialist written word.”6 But while the telephone, radio, television did replace the written word by the spoken word, McLuhan did not anticipate a new tradition of the written word brought on by the advent of computers. With the rise of these machines comes a new form a literacy that can be just as alienating as textual literacy was prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Technological literacy is next to godliness today. As Alan Liu wrote, “while grade school literacy means learning to read fluently…advanced literacy means learning to read analytically by mentally annotating, or otherwise reverse-engineering, presentation. The same applies mutatis mutadis to electronic and digital media.”7 In other words, unlike textual literacy, current electronic media requires one to possess increasing layers of literacy. For when in the past one could have had expertise in one field, such as literature, in the old-fashioned sense, now one has to be well versed in film, TV, music, journalism, etc. in order to be fully participating in this new “digital” age.8
Additionally, one must consider the differences in literacy between text and technology. Where textual literacy only has to be acquired once because letters, codes and meanings stay the same, generally speaking. However, technology such as the computer and its software typically uses a hybrid set of codes involving pictorial icons and invented words. These images and created words are constantly evolving and becoming increasingly less transparent in meaning as time goes by.
There are a variety of technological means of communicating, such as instant messaging, email, and text messaging that requires this hybrid literacy. An interesting phenomenon associated with these modes of communication is the observable increase in the use of slang and mutated language. Acronyms, both officially recognized and not, have quickly become a way to pack a big message in as little effort (or kilobytes) as possible. And if one’s “internet literacy” were severely limited, it would not be as easy to acclimate to the culture of the World Wide Web. For example, one popular acronym, “lol,” is frequently used to represent that the person is “laughing out loud,” while “rofl”, a little more dramatic, means “rolling on the floor laughing”. Hardly decipherable without experience, any person, as highly educated as they may be, would need to learn a new set of vocabulary in order to be internet literate. The same concept can be applied to text messaging, a popular replacement to actual telephonic communication, where words are often curtailed to their abstracted essence or even simply omitted and implied. When messages are limited to a 160-character box, people have found seemingly new languages. When “c u 6” means “see you at six o’clock”, it is hardly a wonder why the older generation tends to shy away from this function while the younger are adapting and innovating more ways to make their textual life “simpler.”
There have been attempts to address this learning curve. For instance, there is the Urbandictionary.com, which lists definitions of words not typically found in the OED, or at least not in the context the word is meant “in the real world (not academia)”. For example, while offering the orthodox definition to “lol”, also gives a myriad of alternate explanations mirrors the OED format, such as 1) “I have nothing worthwhile to contribute to this conversation. 2) I’m too lazy to read what you just wrote so I’m typing something useless in hopes that you’ll think I’m still paying attention. 3) Your statement lacks even the vaguest trace of humor but I’ll pretend I’m amused. 4) This is a pointless acronym I’m sticking in my sentence just because it’s become so engraved into my mind that when chatting, I MUST use the meaningless sentence-filler.”10 Finally, it should be noted that Urban Dictionary.com, like Wikipedia.org, is based on user contributions and their slogan, “Define your World,” indicates a network of people deciding upon a common definition for seemingly arbitrary terminology.
Technological literacy also applies on a more abstract, multi-tiered level. In light of computer software, literacy would imply a basic know-how of user interface and function. For example, iTunes, a popular music player software, does not just magically play the music one desires, but requires knowledge of how to download, purchase, and playback selections. This software also requires, of course at bare minimum, computer literacy.
The consequences of rapidly changing definitions of literacy are abundant. McLuhan claims “mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information.”10 We are in a world where a person who cannot master technology is considered disabled and thus prevented from participating in the world fully.
1 OED, “literacy”
2 OED, “literate”
3 UNESCO, via Wikipedia.org
4 Baudrillard, p. 39
5 Panovsky, p. 35
6 McLuhan, p. 82
7 Liu, p. 7
8 Liu, p. 9
10 McLuhan, p. 16
Jean Baudrillard, “Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media” from The Uncollected Baudrillard. Sage Publications, 2001.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Erwin Panovsky, “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art” from Meaning in the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
“lol,” Urban Dictionary.com
“literacy, ” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000.
“literate, ” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000.
Alan Liu, “Imagining the New Media Encounter,” Introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Forthcoming.