I yearn for simpler days. I like the concept of literacy meaning that one can read and write. Under this definition, I feel comfortable saying that I am, indeed, literate. But, as far as I can tell, literacy has never been quite that simple.
In the nineteenth century, literacy was more about snobbery than anything else and those who deemed themselves literate certainly weren’t encouraging the same in the lower classes of society. Literacy was more about being well-read and being able to write eloquent poetry than any basic functioning in society.
Teachers and politicians eventually got their hands on the word and determined that everyone in society should be literate. This changed the definition again. Now we have the idea that literacy is about a certain basic functioning. It is more than simply reading the stop sign, but that is part of it. Can everyone in society read and understand basic government documents? Can they read prescriptions and medical instructions given by their doctor? Can they write a note to their child’s teacher? Can they read the operation manual of the new kitchen appliance or assemble an Ikea bookshelf? (OK, that might be asking a bit much.) Literacy has to do with functional reading and writing but no longer requires the ability to read the Illiad or write eloquently.
Up to this point, I’m good. I get the concept of literacy. But what happens next makes me feel woefully inadequate. Some idiot went and invented the computer. Now, literacy was starting to change before this. People were talking about media literacy in the 50’s when they wanted to describe the ability to decipher meaning in the often biased reporting of news and the variety of manners in which the news was being disseminated. Marshal McLuhan’s concept of the medium being the message speaks to this need of being able to truly understand what is coming across the airwaves through your TV or radio. But the computer and then the internet took things another huge step.
The advent of networked machines that allowed people to start to create their own messages and communicate them in a myriad of ways significantly changed the meaning of literacy. If the medium is the message, the plethora of media available vastly complicates how we are literate. We now text, make our own videos, podcast, blog, and tweet. Each of these modes of expression have their own protocols and their own inherent meanings. Many require a knowledge of a different use of language through the use of emoticons, hashtags, abbreviations, or images. So, at what point does one become literate in their ability to function successfully in society?
We have some who talk about multiple literacies where each medium has it’s own language that one can become fluent in. We have groupings of literacies such as information literacy where one can find, process, and communicate information through a variety of means. Or digital literacy that deals with fluency within multiple digital modes to communicate and behave effectively. We also have those who believe that there is common link to all of this and they talk about transliteracy. This is fluency across multiple modes of expression in a way that can meaningfully bring these modes of expression together. It is as much about understanding relationships between modes of expression as it is about fluency in any one.
I truly hope that the transliteracy camp can figure this whole thing out. If they can, I can go back to sleeping at night. It will mean that we are back to one, albeit complex, definition of literacy. I can handle a single definition. Now, I think that I’m going to go read a book. Remember those? 😉