Chapter 8 - What are (digital) literacies

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Wordle of Chapter 8
“No man knows, or ever will know, the truth about… everything I speak of;

for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, yet oneself knows it not;
but seeming is wrought over all things.”


In Chapter 3 I noted that for digital literacy to be a tenable proposition it would need to satisfy four main requirements. To recap, these were:

  1. 'Cash value'
  2. Retrospective element
  3. Metaphorical element
  4. Digital element

In subsequent chapters I aimed to show that digital literacy is an ambiguous term (Chapter 5), that it is more appropriate to talk of ‘digital literacies’ (Chapter 7) and that a Pragmatic methodology is appropriate to use in this area (Chapter 6). In this chapter I attempt to navigate a path from Creative ambiguity to Productive ambiguity. I revisit the four requirements set out above, analysing the structures upon which new and digital literacies stand as well as focusing upon the ‘digital’ element in ‘digital literacies’.

The evolution of communication

Since coming into existence, humans have had to communicate with one another. One method of doing so is through the written word, but this technology has come rather late in the evolution of communication. One way to represent this evolution would be with the aid of the following diagram:

Figure 9 - A hierarchy of literacies

Writing in the age of mass communication and mass media, but before the dawn of the internet, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan were not disadvantaged by discussions of the latter clouding their thinking about previous technologies. It is from a synthesis of their thinking that the above diagram was created. As Ong explains, language is, and has been, by far the most prevalent method of communication. Language is 'overwhelmingly oral':

Indeed, language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages - possibly tens of thousands - spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literate, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature. (Ong, 1982:2002, p.7)

This is because, unlike writing, orality is 'natural' p.81 and primary.<ref>“Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality” (Ong, 1982:2002, p.8)</ref> The process of writing and becoming 'literate' actually restructures consciousness, believes Ong.<ref>“Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does'” (Ong, 1982:2002, p.77)</ref> McLuhan goes a step further, calling writing 'the technology of individualism' (McLuhan, 1962, p.158) and reminds us that the typographic world is in its relative infancy. Although the written word as we know it did exist between the fifth century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D. this was not 'mass communication' and was restricted to the elite few (McLuhan, 1962, p.74). It was the typographic world, as opposed to the scribal, manuscript-driven world previously in existence that led to the context-free nature of literacy, claims Ong (1982:2002, p.77) - 'written discourse has been detached from its author.' Whereas in an oral world things could be forgotten, stances changed and context necessarily understood, this changed fundamentally with the dawn of the typographic world. A difficulty arises when, at a distance from the author, and out of context, an individual attempts to separate the signifier from the thing signified:

Writing makes 'words' appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed 'words' in texts and books. Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. (Ong, 1982:2002, p.11)

This 'residue or deposit' affects ideas surrounding human consciousness and identity. It gives human beings, both individually and corporately, additional 'powers' - especially in relation to 'memory' and communication over large distances. 'Conversations' (in a loose sense of the term) can happen asynchronously over many years and great distances. As Ong reminds us, there is no way to completely refute a written text as 'after absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before' (Ong, 1982:2002, p.78).

The move to ‘new(er) literacies' came at the end of the 20th century. Ong (1982:2002, p.3) would explain this through a move into what he would call 'secondary orality', whilst McLuhan (1962, p.253) speaks of the 'Gutenberg galaxy' coming to an end in the era of electronic communication. Although McLuhan points out that we are approximately as far into the 'electric era' as the Elizabethans were into the 'typographical age' (McLuhan, 1962, p.1), and that they had to justify books in education in a similar way that we have to justify technology (p.145), he explains that the two changes are nevertheless very different:

Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious... As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and psychically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. (McLuhan, 1962, p.5)

It is this less individualised, more 'networked' world that has led to the discussion of 'new literacies'. The stimulus to traditional conceptions of literacy, says Ong (1982, p.85) was urbanization, partly because it led to the need and desire for record-keeping. The stimulus to newer conceptions of literacy, including 'digital literacy' is, therefore, perhaps the metaphorical 'proximity' of our relationships despite geographical distance. Whereas traditional literacy was predicated upon technologies that promoted individualism, newer conceptions of literacy depend upon access, collaboration and sharing.

Just as post-Gutenberg civilization struggled with the technology of the typographic world (and associated problems surrounding grammar/personal access to previously difficult-to-obtain works) so we struggle faced with a world where, quite literally, using the internet anybody can publish to a global audience cheaply and without delay. We are in a world where new literacies may be required or, as Ong puts it, a world of 'secondary orality':

The electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality. ... This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp.284-303; 1977, pp.16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well. (Ong, 1982:2002, p.133-4)

The reference to the self-consciousness of this 'secondary orality' is important, but also causes problems. As LaFitte puts it, “because we are their makers, we have too often deluded ourselves into believing that we knew all there was to know about machines”.<ref>LaFitte, quoted in McLuhan, 1962, p.155</ref> We are tied to a print-based culture which, to some extent, limits our ability to express ourselves:

“In the electronic age which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of expressions which are "oral" in form even when the components of the situation may be non-verbal’.” (McLuhan, 1962, p.3)

Some want to call this knowledge of machines and new shapes and structures a form of literacy. Proponents of 'New Literacies' in particular are keen to widen the idea of 'literacy' in a similar way to postmodernists wanting to widen what is meant by 'text'. The issue, as I questioned in Chapter 7, is whether such 'New Literacies' are 'literacies' in any real sense of the word.

Evolution or revolution?

As we saw earlier through a quotation from Gee, Hull & Lankshear 'whatever literacy is, it [has] something to do with reading. In addition, it must be reading with understanding. This idea of literacy being 'reading something with understanding is what I will continue to refer to as 'Traditional (Print) Literacy’. This conception of literacy is static and psychological, focused on the individual's relationship, and interaction, with physical objects. The physical book comprises what Lankshear & Knobel call the 'text paradigm' - something over and above the simple act of reading with understanding:

[D]uring the age of print the book... shaped conceptions of layout, it was the pinnacle of textual authority, and it played a central role in organizing practices and routines in major social institutions. The book mediated social relations of control and power... Textual forms and formats were relatively stable and were 'policed' to ensure conformity. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.52)

This perpetuation of hegemonic power through Traditional Literacy has complicated debates surrounding, and the evolution of the term, 'literacy'. Not only is 'reading with understanding' bound up with politics, but also with religion and with identity. Literacy is predicated upon a scarcity model, “with literacy comprising a key instrumentality for unlocking advantage and status through achievements at levels wilfully preserved for the few” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.62). Schools and educational institutions, as Bigum notes, are mainly consumers of knowledge.<ref>Cited in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.188</ref> Meaning is made centrally and then disseminated to such institutions and individuals as can access the encoded texts used to convey ideas, thoughts, concepts and processes. These encoded texts consist of, ' texts that have been "frozen" or "captured" in ways that free them from their immediate context and origin of production, such that they are "(trans)portable" and exist independently of the presence of human beings as bearers of the text' (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008b, p.257).

Recently, with the dawn of first mass media, and then mass participation with the rise of the internet, conceptions of literacy have had to change. This has put a strain on the static, pyschological conceptions implicit in Traditional Literacy. As a result, what 'literacy' means (and therefore what it means to be 'literate') has changed. As Lanham puts it, literacy “has extended its semantic reach from meaning 'the ability to read and write' to now meaning 'the ability to understand information however presented.”<ref>Quoted by Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.21-2</ref> There is no doubt that 'literacy' has become a fuzzy concept that gives the semblance of being straightforward but, on closer inspection, contains layers of complexity. Erstad, for example, comments on this fuzziness, noting that it is apparent 'especially among those educators and researchers whose professional interests are tied to how literacy is understood' (Erstad, 2008, p.181-2).

Given these difficulties, some commentators such as Sven Birkets in The Gutenberg Elegies yearn for a return to Traditional Literacy due to the decline in the reading of books. This, he believes, comes “with the attendant effects of the loss of deep thinking, the erosion of language, and the flattening of historical perspective” (Birkets, 2006, p.15). He argues, along with Kress (1997) that literacy “should be confined to the realm of writing”. Rejecting such a dichotomy, Tyner (1998) sought to reconceptualize the debate in terms of 'tool literacies' (the skills necessary to be able to use a technology) and 'literacies of representation' (the knowledge required to take advantage of a technology).<ref>Cited in Erstad, 2008, p.183</ref> This middle ground gave space for multiple conceptions of literacy to flourish.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, these 'New Literacies' bear more than a hint of old wine in new bottles, as we saw in Chapter 7:

It does not follow from the fact that so-called new technologies are being used in literacy education that new literacies are being engaged with. Still less does it imply that learners are developing, critiquing, analysing, or even become technologically proficient with new literacies. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.54-5)

The problem surrounding new(er) literacies in educational institutions such as schools is fourfold. First, there is the very real problem of educators not having grown up in an environment where such digital skills, both Tyner's 'tool literacies' and 'literacies of representation', were necessary. The age-old problem of "it was good enough for me when I was at school" applies as much to educators as it does to parents. If a problem cannot be seen and/or understood then it cannot be dealt with effectively. Second, educators are sometimes unwilling to ascribe day-to-day problems they face to their own weaknesses (such as ignorance, or fear of change). If the mere presence of, for example, an interactive whiteboard in a classroom does not lead to increased examination performance, then the technology tends to be blamed; the suggestion that new technologies should not necessarily be used to prop-up a paradigm is not countenanced. Following on from this, and third, is what is known as the 'deep grammar' of schooling:

School learning is for school; school as it has always been. The burgeoning take-up of new technologies simply gives us our latest 'fix' on this phenomenon. It is the 'truth' that underpins many current claims that school learning is at odds with authentic ways of learning to be in the world, and with social practice beyond the school gates... It is precisely this 'deep grammar' of schooling that cuts schools off from the new (technological) literacies and associated subjectivities that Bill Green and Chris Bigum (1993) say educators are compelled to attend to. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.57)

'School' then becomes a self-perpetuating institution, cut off from new(er) conceptions and forms of literacy. As a result, ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ become two very different things. Given that school is the place where most people (are supposed to) learn, this constitutes a problem of relevance and somewhat of a crisis for new literacies.

Finally, there is the problem of 'knowledgeable peers' when it comes to new forms of literacy in schools. Top-down, hierarchical, Traditional (Print) Literacy is perpetuated within schools because it is so difficult to come up with other practical models. League tables, and other, ostensibly 'rigorous' external measures, serve to restrict and limit the activities schools and teachers can perform. There is much invested in maintaining status quo. Whilst public debate and discussion has taken place in most western countries surrounding the place of technology in privacy and entertainment, the same is lacking within the sphere of education. Just what new technologies mean for the education of young people in the 21st century remains an open question.

Given the ubiquitous and mandated use of technology in almost every occupation, students are left with a problem. They 'seek to enter new communities... but do not yet have the knowledge necessary to act as "knowledgeable peers" in the community conversation' (Taylor & Ward, 1998, p.18). Educators seeking to perpetuate Traditional (Print) Literacy often exploit the difference between students 'tool literacy' on the one-hand (their technical ability) and their understanding of, and proficiency in 'literacies of representation' (making use of these abilities for a purpose). Students are stereotyped at having great technical ability but lacking the skills to put these into practice. Given the 'duty of care' educational institutions have, reference is therefore made to 'e-safety', 'e-learning' and 'e-portfolios' - slippery terms that sound important and which serve to reinforce a traditional teacher-led model of education. As Bruffee points out, “pooling the resources that a group of peers brings with them to the task may make accessible the normal discourse of the new community they together hope to enter."<ref>Quoted by Taylor & Ward, 1998, p.18</ref> The barrier, in this case, is the traditional school classroom and the view that Traditional Literacy is a necessary and sufficient conditional requirement for entry into such communities.

The assumption made by many is that Traditional Literacy has some form of counterpart in the form of 'Digital Literacy'. Such thinking places use of, for example, the internet on a continuum stretching neatly back from inventions such as writing on slate, through papyrus, the printing press and mass media (TV, radio, cinema). The danger with this 'artefactual' approach when examining new technologies, argues Ursula Franklin, is that “[technologies] involve much more than simply passing on and/or adding to written or visual texts or information per se... Rather, they are tied directly to ways of interacting with others... and to ways of being, knowing, learning and doing”.<ref>Quoted by Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.235</ref> 'Reading with understanding' on the internet is not as straightforward as the 'reading with understanding' of a book or other printed matter. On the most basic level, unlike with most printed matter, there is no correct way to navigate via hyperlink the myriad websites that make up the digital world. But more than this, there is no barrier to publishing. No barriers means no editorial control. No editorial control means potential equal weight and emphasis given to extreme views, incorrect assertions and illegal acts. Thus access to, and use of, technology becomes a moral issue.

Given this and other 'problems', theorists have attempted to incorporate extra elements within literacy in an attempt to answer or avoid them. For example, the DigEuLit project conceived of 'Digital Literacy' as including “the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks” (Martin, 2005), something without parallel in conceptions of Traditional Literacy. Martin also adds 'the ability to reflect on one's own digital literacy development' (ibid.) as being an important aspect of Digital Literacy, propelling the term into a level much higher than mere 'competence'. The heart of the tension is whether or not the technologies involved are transformative in their bearing on literacy. A difficulty arises, however, as improvements in technology mean that the goalposts are continually shifting and thus altering social practices. This is an important point raised by Graham (1999) who wonders at what point something (such as the internet) that extends literacy practices can count at transformative. There must be some revolutionary, transformative technologies, otherwise everything from the invention of the wheel would be an 'extension' of existing technologies and social practices. Those who support this 'revolutionary' view, such as Taylor & Ward , believe that because “computer networks... improve communicative interaction among students, teachers, and even texts” then sociocultural practices are altered (Taylor & Ward, 1999, p.xvii). It is these changes in sociocultural practices that result in calls for the definition of new literacies.

This sociocultural practices model conceives of literacy as 'an active relationship or a way of orienting to the social and cultural world' (Rantala & Suoranta, 2008, p.96-7). Unlike models of Traditional (Print) Literacy based upon the printed word, the sociocultural practices model (as we saw in Chapter 3) conceives of literacy as being a process instead of a state. Literacy is thus bound up with identity, culture and involves a reflective element. Whereas Traditional Literacy is about training and competence, the forms of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model involve interaction and creativity. This almost 'meta' form of literacy is defined by the 'mashup' and the remix; it could be seen as post-postmodernism, making one's own sense of a fragmented 'reality'.

The difficulty is that the view of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model strains at the very edges of the word 'literacy'. This, believe Lankshear & Knobel, is a problem relating to conceptions of Traditional (Print) Literacy, not a new problem for the sociocultural practices model to face uniquely:

Sometimes… 'literacy' [is] a metaphor for 'competence', 'proficiency' or 'being functional'. Concepts like 'being computer literate' or being 'technologically literate' are sometimes used to mean that someone is more or less proficient with a computer or some other device like a video recorder: they can 'make sense of' and 'use' computers, or can program their video player or mobile phone. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.20)

Presumably, Lankshear & Knobel's conception of true 'Traditional (Print) Literacy’ would be more than the ability to 'read with understanding' any printed matter. It would involve some meta-level remixing, the ability to deconstruct the text and reflect on what one has done. If not, then it is difficult to see how they could describe skills in the digital world as a 'literacy'. If the use of, and interaction with, digital texts is not a 'revolution' and if theorists want to continue using the term 'literacy', then some type of middle ground must be sought. It would be difficult to disagree with Lankshear & Knobel's 'working hypothesis':

[T]he world is now significantly different from how it was two or three decades ago... this difference has a lot to do with the emergence of new technologies and changes in social practices associated with these... the changes are part of a move from what we have called 'industrial' values and ways of doing things and increasing embrace of 'post-industrial' values and ways of doing things. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.53)

To establish a 'middle ground', then, a dialectic should be set up:

[T]he idea of 'new' literacies is a useful way to conceptualize what might be seen as one component of an unfolding 'literacy dialectic'. By a dialectic we mean a kind of transcendence, in which two forces that exist in tension with one another 'work out their differences', as it were, and evolve into something that bears the stamp of both, yet is qualitatively different from each of them. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.29)

Indeed, Martin believes that 'transformation is not a necessary condition of digital literacy' as '[a]ctivity at the level of appropriate and informed usage would be sufficient to be described as digitally literate' (Martin, 2008, p.173). This is a rather conservative and non-specific conception of literacy. What would 'appropriate and informed usage' look like in practice? It allows, for example, for ICT-based, procedural definitions such as those that frame Microsoft's 'Digital Literacy Curriculum' and European Commission reports as well as more 'critical' conceptions such as thos as championed by authors like Buckingham.

To be clear, the forces that 'exist in tension with one another' in Lankshear and Knobel's view are, on the one hand, Traditional Literacy, and on the other, digital skills. The problem is that words used to describe the latter are used imprecisely. As Fieldhouse & Nicholas put it:

Definitions of digital and information literacy are numerous. Within this pool of definitions, terms often are interchangeable; for example, "literacy", "fluency" and "competency" can all be used to describe the ability to steer a path through digital and information environments to find, evaluate, and accept or reject information. (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008, p.50-1)

Without an appeal to a dialectic, this 'ability to steer a path' would become tantamount to a naming dispute. Digital literacy, digital fluency, and digital competence could need touchstones on either side of the debate to be able to position themselves on a continuum. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the term 'literacy' can be stretched to accommodate the higher-level, 'meta', reflective elements that proponents of 'New Literacies' envisage. Recent developments in the US with<ref>See Chapter 2</ref> suggest that polarisation rather than integration is the trend, although there are rays of hope through initiatives such as the MacArthur Foundation-funded DML Central.<ref></ref>

There are some, however, who would reject the idea of a dialectic when it comes to literacy, calling for revolution not evolution. Instead of encouraging an interplay of old and new conceptions of literacy, they would espouse a clear demarcation. New technologies call for new literacies - and perhaps, epistemologies:

[A] seemingly increasing proportion of what people do and seek within practices mediated by new technologies - particularly computing and communications technologies - has nothing directly to do with true and established rules, procedures and standards for knowing. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.242-3)

There are three main reasons why this is the case. The first relates to the personality traits of people involved.

Figure 10 - The Technology Adoption Lifecycle (also known as ‘Rodgers Diffusion of Innovation’)

This distribution, shown as a Bell curve, is known as the 'technology adoption lifecycle' and, whilst an abstraction and over-simplification, gives a thumbnail sketch of how individuals position themselves with regards to new technologies. The early adopters are the first to figure out ways of using new technologies. By the time technologies reach the mainstream they are far from neutral having been tried, tested, accepted, rejected or accommodated by a 'digital elite'. Skewed epistemologies can therefore lead to skewed literacies.

The second reason why practices surrounding technology-mediated practices are different and perhaps require new literacies is down to identity. Digital interaction removes a layer of physicality from interactions. This can be liberating in the case of, for example, a burns victim or someone otherwise disabled or disfigured. They can use virtual worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft or Playstation@Home to regain confidence. It can also be 'dangerous' as individuals are often able to remain anonymous in online interactions. Physical interactions are bounded by time and space in a way that digital interactions are not. Whilst asynchronous interactions have been possible since the first marks were made in an effort to communicate, digital interactions go way beyond what is possible with the book. With printed matter, it is difficult to accidentally take something out of context as one has to deal with the book in its entirety. With digital interactions, however, it is much easier to misrepresent what was intended by the author, even accidentally. Interactions and texts also tend to be shorter online. Thus, in the 'fight for the soundbite', distortion of the original message can occur.

Third, practices mediated by technology are different because of the element of community involved. Traditional Literacy is predicated upon a scarcity model of education and exclusionist principles. This was originally done for positive reasons: the belief in meritocracy necessarily leads to exclusion of 'all but the best’. When the only option is face-to-face teaching and learning, scarcity of resources is a major issue but also an opportunity to earn money or status. Communities embodying scarcity and exclusionist models focus on the who rather than the what, identity rather than interest. With technology-mediated practices, on the other hand, even 'niche' interests can be catered for in ‘affinity spaces’.

These, then, are three reasons new technologies can be linked to new epistemologies: personality, identity, and community. Whether new epistemologies necessarily lead to new literacies is debatable. As Erstad (2008) notes, all interaction is mediated and involves social and psychological processes. This is transformed when technology is used to do the communicating:

Regardless of the particular case or the genetic domain involved, the general point is that the introduction of a new mediational means creates a kind of imbalance in the systemic organization of mediated action, an imbalance that sets off changes in other elements such as the agent and changes in mediated action in general. (quoted in Erstad, 2008, p.180-1)

It is at this point that Lankshear and Knobel's demarcation between 'conceptual' and 'standardized operational' definitions of literacy becomes useful. Conceptual definitions are what primarily interest us here, the extension of literacy's ‘semantic reach’ as opposed to 'operationalizing' what is involved in digital literacy and “advanc[ing] these as a standard for general adoption” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008a, p.2-3).

Instead of coining terms and giving existing concepts a 'digital twist', those who reject the dialectical approach propose 'New Literacies'. They would reject Gilster's assertion that “digital literacy is the logical extension of literacy itself, just as hypertext is an extension of the traditional reading experience” (Gilster, 1997, p.230). Instead, as we began to see in Chapter 7, New Literacies theorists such as Lankshear and Knobel believe that “the more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship..., the more we should regard it as a 'new' literacy” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.60).

In an attempt to flesh out this conception of New Literacies, however, the authors 'muddy the waters' somewhat. By seeking to explain what is 'new' about New Literacies, Lankshear and Knobel make reference to: a certain kind of technical stuff – digitality” (2006, p.93) which seems to somewhat beg the question. They do concede, however, that 'having new technical stuff is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a new literacy. It might amount to a digitized way of doing 'the same old same old'.' The authors attempt to deal with the difficulty of New Literacies involving identity by demarcating between 'Literacy' and 'literacy'. Their demarcation is worth quoting in full:

Literacy, with a 'big L' refers to making meaning in ways that are tied directly to life and to being in the world (c.f. Freire 1972, Street 1984). That is, whenever we use language, we are making some sort of significant or socially recognizable 'move' that is inextricably tied to someone bringing into being or realizing some element or aspect of their world. This means that literacy, with a 'small l', describes the actual process of reading, writing, viewing, listening, manipulating images and sound, etc., making connections between different ideas, and using words and symbols that are part of these larger, more embodied Literacy practices. In short, this distinction explicitly recognizes that L/literacy is always about reading and writing something, and that this something is always part of a large pattern of being in the world (Gee, et al. 1996). And, because there are multiple ways of being in the world, then we can say that there are multiple L/literacies. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.233, my emphasis)

Earlier, Lankshear and Knobel moved from new technologies to new epistemologies, here they move from ontology to literacy. It is not clear, however, that such a move can be sustained. What do the authors mean by stating that 'there are multiple ways of being in the world'? What constitutes a difference in these ways of being? Does each 'way of being' map onto a 'literacy'? The authors claim that to be 'ontologically new' means to 'consist of a different kind of 'stuff' from conventional literacies' reflective of 'larger changes in technology, institutions, media and the economy... and so on' (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.23-4).

In effect, what we are asking is: what changes when a new technology is introduced? How does it affect how we interact, how we think and how we communicate? Useful here may be Marshall McLuhan's idea of 'tetrads' (as set out in his posthumously-published Laws of Media).

Figure 11 - McLuhan's tetrads

Any medium or human artefact simultaneously enhances, reverses, retrieves and obsolesces - although the effects in each area may take years to manifest themselves. If we take the mobile phone (cellphone) as an example to place in the centre of the tetrad, we observe the following. The mobile phone enhances communication by voice whilst reversing the need to keep people close in order to communicate with them. Public telephone booths become obsolete, but certain behaviours (such as infantile shouting) are retrieved.

McLuhan also believed that technologies have to be understood in their historical context, using the idea of 'figure and ground' to underpin his famous phrase “the medium is the message:. The figure (or medium) operates through its ground (or context) with both having to be understood together to make either intelligible. McLuhan believed that each technology reflects a way of understanding the world, especially in terms of time and space. Attempting to understand a particular technology or medium without the culture in which it was used would be at best anachronistic and at worst misleading.

This idea of each medium having its own tetradic influence, along with McLuhan's borrowing of the concept of 'figure and ground' from Gestalt psychology would seem to make the idea of a single, monolithic 'digital literacy' untenable. Not only does the 'digital' refer to devices that cover many cultural niches and time periods, but each obeys McLuhan's Laws of Media in different ways. We have moved from a psychological view of understanding literacy (as with Traditional Literacy) to a sociological view where '[l]iteracies are bound up with social, institutional and cultural relationships, and can only be understood when they are situated within their social, cultural and historical contexts' (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.12).

As Lankshear and Knobel go on to mention, literacy is always connected to social identity, to being a particular type of person. This is necessarily singular in a world where communication is bounded by physicality, but in a digital world may be multiple. Online I may have as many personas and identities as I have accounts with various services and spaces. This has led to what is known as 'affinity spaces, places where informal learning takes place amongst people who have a shared activity, interest or goal (Gee, 2004). This could be a war-game played online through an identity symbolised by a 'butch' soldier avatar, involvement in a photo-sharing community where members post comments, ideas and tips on each others' work, or a fan fiction arena where members share a love of a particular film/TV series/book. It is not difficult to imagine an individual involving himself in each of these communities simultaneously using a different identity, avatar, and persona in each space:

These multiple identities are predicated upon 'the recognition of "difference" and hyperplurality... suggest[ing] that the emerging architecture of world order is moving away from territorially distinct, mutually exclusive, linear orderings of space toward nonlinear, multiperspectival, overlapping layers of political authority. Likewise, modern mass identities centred on the "nation" are being dispersed into multiple, nonterritorial "niche" communities and fragmented identities. (Deibert, 1996, quoted in Hawisher & Selfe, 2000, p.288)

If communities are defined by communication and creative acts, and if these two activities are based upon some form of literacy, then literacies must be multiple, ever-changing and quickly evolving. This is consistent with Bauman’s idea of ‘liquid modernity’, that society has been transformed by a move from the ‘solid’ to the ‘liquid’ phase of modernity (Bauman, 2005). Social forms ‘melt’ faster than new ones can be cast which means that they cannot be used as frames of reference for long-term ‘life strategies’ or human action. It is difficult to see how a generalised notion of 'digital literacy' would have time to 'solidify' and reside within an individual in a pure form. Instead, using theories such as Connectivism to conceive of learning - and therefore literacies - as residing in networks may be more sustainable. Considering education in terms of Discourse(s) rather than as transmission leads to:

thinking of education and learning in terms not of schools and children (place-related and age-specific) but, instead, in terms of human lives as trajectories through diverse social practices and institutions... To learn something is to progress toward a fuller understanding and fluency with doing and being in ways that are recognized as proficient relative to recognized ways of 'being in the world’. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.196)

Social practices become both all-important and compartmentalized. Learners as 'nodes on a network' can gain identity and status whilst simultaneously helping shape what, for that particular community, is an accepted and recognized way of 'being in the world'. Methodologies and 'literacies' (if such a term is to be used) are negotiated and emergent. As Siemens, one of the developers of the theory of Connectivism puts it:

The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individuals. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed. (Siemens, 2004)

In a world where the 'half-life' of knowledge, “the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete”, is shrinking rapidly, such networked learning and associated literacies are essential.<ref>Gonzalez, 2004 quoted by Siemens, 2004</ref>

But is the word 'literacy' useful in such a context? Literacy is a state which has traditionally been ascribed (or not) to individuals. Is the state that writers on 'New Literacies' espouse simply a case of encoding and decoding texts? It would appear from the above, given the references to 'identity' and 'community' that perhaps we have moved beyond literacy. An idea to be explored in what follows is that a digital version of the concept of Flow may be a Pragmatically-useful concept to use in place of the seemingly never-ending 'umbrella terms' outlined earlier.

In his seminal work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of 'flow' as being at the root of true happiness, successful learning experiences and intrinsic motivation. In a state of flow, individuals undergo what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as 'the autotelic experience':

The term "autotelic" derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward... Most things we do are neither purely autotelic nor purely exotelic (as we shall call activities done for external reasons only), but are a combination of the two. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990:2008, p.67)

Focusing on the term 'literacy' and attempting to shoehorn 21st-century behaviours, technologies and attitudes into the concept could lead to anachronism. Literacy, as we have seen, is predicated upon technologies used to encode and decode texts. The reason Traditional Literacy was such a stable concept with a definite meaning in the minds of most people was due to it being built upon a technology (paper) that did not change significantly in hundreds of years. It is the pace of innovation in new technologies that has caused a problem for conceptions of literacy.

If instead of a 'top-down' approach to literacy ('x, y and z constitute literate activities') a 'bottom-up' approach is considered, this could potentially side-step the difficulty caused by the pace of technological change. Literacy would be therefore understood as a concept that emerged from activities that, retrospectively, would be deemed 'literate practices'. The reason that concepts such as 'digital literacy', 'cyberliteracy', ‘New Literacies’ and the like have been proposed is to give a name to a socially useful state to which individuals can aspire. Given that most proponents of such terms would agree that their thinking is built upon Traditional Literacy, it would seem that using 'literacy' as an epithet for these extra skills, abilities and behaviours is unnecessary.

What may be more useful in a Pragmatic sense may be to assume Traditional Literacy and combine these skills with digital tools and sociocultural practices that lead to socially and educationally-useful outcomes. Instead of viewing a 'digital' version of literacy as a pinnacle to be achieved or surmounted, the focus would be upon Flow. When dealing with digital 'texts' (widely defined) this would result in Digital Flow depending upon literacy. Literacy becomes a staging-post on the journey instead of the destination itself:

Figure 12 - Literacy as a destination

Mass education, as developed in the 19th century, served to instil a minimum standard through drill-and-practice within the realm of Traditional (Print) Literacy. Some have likened this to a factory model with bells signifying the end of 'shifts' and Taylorism as its guiding principle. This is slightly unfair, given the constraints, social problems and political landscape of the time, but does throw light upon how debates surrounding the purpose of education have shifted. It is no longer enough to ensure that young people leave school with the '3Rs'. Indeed, under initiatives such as Ofsted's Every Child Matters (ECM), wider concerns such as children's (mental) health, and their ability to achieve 'economic wellbeing' have necessarily been brought to the forefront of planning and curriculum design in UK schools.<ref>See, for example,</ref>

Despite this, skills and abilities in almost every area of the curriculum are, somewhat indiscriminately, designated 'literacies'. Courses are designed around concepts as 'health literacy', 'financial literacy' and 'emotional literacy' as a shorthand to convey action relating to the ECM agenda. It may be more productive and instructive to replace this 'scatter-gun' approach to literacy with a more far-reaching commitment towards helping young people develop their 'autotelic self':

A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices… without much fuss and the minimum of panic… As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it… And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one’s actions – to monitor the feedback… One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pusuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2008, p.209)

Instead of having to continually widen and redefine literacy to cater for new technologies and methods of social interaction, a focus on Digital Flow would be consistent with the idea of 'liquid modernity' mentioned earlier. It would serve to end the idea of a 'life-project' being something external to the individual and encourage individuals to embrace short-term, pragmatic strategies when approaching digital technologies (Martin, 2008, p.153). Digital Flow is focused on the creative act, as opposed to never-ending definitions of literacy predicated on the consumption of media or physical goods. As a result, Digital Flow could be considered the 'umbrella-term' for which theorists have been grasping and over which they have been arguing. Moreover, it can be seen as a coherent target at which to aim educational experiences. It would relegate literacy to the functional skill it was initially conceived as.

The problem with moving to a concept of Digital Flow is that ‘flow’ is not seen as related, much less coextensive, with ‘literacy’. In contrast, using a modifier such as ‘information’, ‘digital’ or ‘visual’ in front of the term ‘literacy’ does give a sense of the kind of practices being aimed at. Perhaps it is better to start with what we have got rather than attempting to carve out an entirely new area, even if a jump from ‘literacy’ to ‘flow’ would be more productive in the long-run. As educators know, in order to move people’s thinking forward, you have to start from the known and the familiar.

Digital Epicycles

Given the problems of pinning down just one Digital Literacy or conceptualising practices in terms of ‘Digital Flow’ it is tempting to question the whole enterprise. However, there does seem to be something out there worth talking about, something that transcends language barriers and, despite Prensky’s assertions to the contrary, generations of learners.

Perhaps one of the difficulties is that researchers focus too much upon the ‘literacy’ part of ‘digital literacy’: they stress the part they believe to be problematic and assume that everyone knows what is meant by ‘digital’. However, part of the problem may be that the adjective, commonly considered to be ‘digital’ is actually the verb, with adjective (literacy) and verb (digital) the wrong way around. Would conceptions of ‘literacy digital’ be any different from ‘digital literacy’?

First of all, we need to get to grips with what is meant by the word ‘digital’. At its most fundamental level, ‘digital’ is defined in opposition to ‘analogue’ with the former being made up of binary distinctions and numbers in a way the latter is not. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the word ‘digital’ is from the use of fingers (Latin: digitālis) and has to do with separate numerical values. However, it would seem counter-intuitive to consider a suitable definition of ‘digital’ as merely consisting of bits and bytes and binary states. Instead, much as a ‘text’ can be understood as more than simply a collection of printed words, ‘digital’ can be understood in a more metaphorical way. If ‘digital’ denotes bits and bytes, what does it connote?

Interestingly, as with ‘literacy’, ‘digital’ involves an aspect of status. The digital world is often compared in unfavourable terms in the mainstream media with the ‘real’ world. Increasingly, the ‘digital’ is synonymous with ‘online’ much as the ‘internet’ and the ‘World Wide Web’ is an elision that usually goes unquestioned, despite meaning separate things. This difference in status leads to pejorative and dismissive considerations of Facebook ‘friends’ and other types of online interactions which, it is argued (Daily Mail, 2011) are not as ‘real’ as those kinds carried out face-to-face. Alternative ‘realities’ such as Second Life, and to some extent Minecraft and World of Warcraft, are seen as somehow less legitimate places for interaction than the street, the classroom or the coffee shop.

Before mass-adoption of internet connections, ‘digital’ would apply to stand-alone computers with, for example, floppy disks containing a backup of a ‘real’ document that had been produced: the analogue world took precedence. Today, however, the digital version is seen as the ‘real’ taking precedence over any particular physical manifestation; documents, for example, are understood to be primarily digital with occasional printed iterations. If we ask the question of what has changed over the last 20 years, the answer is that the ease and speed of digital communications over networks (and networks of networks) has increased exponentially. Documents and other kinds of files can reside in multiple locations and it can often be as easy to get in touch with someone in a distant country and time zone than someone in an adjacent classroom or office.

This is not merely a change in speed. The ability to work differently leads, naturally, to different social and work practices. Thus, we have distributed teams and increases in home working amongst those whom are considered ‘knowledge workers’ (37 Signals, 2010). The ‘digital’ is no longer a different realm that one enters into from time-to-time, but fully integrated in a blended, ‘augmented’ way through the proliferation of personal devices such as smartphones, MP3 players and tablet computers.

Conceiving of ‘literacy digital’ must, to a great extent, involve some kind of understanding of the affordances ‘digital’ provides. The difference is not encapsulated merely in connecting to people one has never met face-to-face for a common purpose as, after all, social movements with their pamphlets and public meetings have been a feature of societies for hundreds of years. Nor is it the case that real world effects such as the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 (Mason, 2011) are the result of face-to-face practices translated to, and accelerated by, a digital world. The difference can be explained with reference to the ways in which imitation and inspiration work in the analogue and digital worlds. In the analogue world, these are subject to stringent copyright laws; slight variations upon a theme may be known collectively as ‘fashions’ but copying is liable to end in a lawsuit. In the digital world, meanwhile, with much different copyright and remix cultures, memes become much more nuanced versions of mere ‘fashions’ and lawsuits are less likely.

Examples of well-known memes include LOLcats, ‘all your base belong to us’ and the phenomenon of ‘Rickrolling’. These all involve some form of specific cultural awareness, in-jokes and technical expertise. Taking just one of these examples, Rickrolling, we can see that it is a classic bait-and-switch manouvere in which a seemingly-relevant link takes the unsuspecting person clicking upon it to the video of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. This video was chosen because of the seriousness and earnestness of the lyrics and facial expressions coupled with bad dancing. The tension and evident ‘uncool’ nature of the 1980s era video is humorous. Even a meme that depends heavily on a particular form of media (in this case, video) can evolve, with a spoof Wikileaks version making the rounds in late 2010 (Huffington Post, 2010) being a ‘Rickroll’ but entirely text-based. This official-looking document, which copied the format of a ‘leaked’ cable becoming increasingly well-known because of the furore surrounding the Wikileaks website at that time, simply featured the lyrics from ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Amusing and largely innocuous, such practices highlight the importance of effective digital practices including the awareness of sources of information.

There are many ways to try to get at ‘literacy digital’. Howard Rheingold, for instance, talks of a ‘network literacy’ being essential to life in the 21st century. He believes that “humans appropriate communication media to self-organise collective action on their own behalf” (Rheingold, 2009a), something that would help explain the ‘Arab Spring’ mentioned above, and which was organised primarily through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Becoming ‘network literate’ is important, argues Rheingold, as it has to do with the locus of control: what you know about networks affects the freedom, wealth and participation both you and your children may enjoy. ‘Literacy digital’ for Rheingold is therefore allied to the protocols and methods for connecting networks together to create added value. Such a ‘literacy of the digital’ is a key building block in Rheingold’s choice of umbrella term: ‘Participatory Media Literacy’ (Rheingold, 2009b).

Perhaps, as the digital world and the physical world become increasingly blended, the need to append the word ‘literacy’ to what are, in many cases, examples of awareness will diminish. Focusing on the ‘digital’ aspect of digital literacies brings out the ways in which traditional notions of literacy are predicated upon embodiment as much as ideas and competencies. Digital copies are (usually) instantaneous, perfect copies of the original file which, amongst other things, changes the (perceived) value of the result of someone’s work. The traditional deficit model (if I have a unique thing, then you do not) does not apply in a digital, networked world. Literacy, argue thinkers such as Rheingold, must at least take account of this difference.

In a way, then, digital literacy is a metaphorical term, a bridging concept that helps individuals move from one realm to another. In alternative versions of the distribution we saw earlier in this chapter there is often a gap in the curve between the ‘Early adopters’ and the ‘Early majority’. In order for concepts and technologies to bridge this gap the value of that concept or technology has to be made explicit to a greater number of people. It could be argued that digital literacy has served, and continues to serve, as that bridging term between the early adopters and the majority, moving as a concept from the Creative ambiguity part of the spectrum I introduced in Chapter 5 towards a more Productive ambiguity. A concept that may be worth exploring for researchers is the idea of digital workflows and to what extent good design plays a part in minimising the functional digital literacy skills required by individuals. The launch of the Apple iPad in 2010 is a good example of this as designers specifically took into account previous frustrations (with devices that had effectively evolved from typewriters) in forming something radically different. Changing towards a more human-centred design of technology potentially ameliorates some of the problems and learning curve associated with digital literacies.

Summing up

Despite the multiplicity of ways that digital literacy is used in practice, for any kind of academic rigour to be maintained the four requirements of digital literacy outlined in Chapter 3 still need to be met. It would appear that proponents of digital skills must jettison any claims to ‘literacy’ or, they must develop some form of framework of new and digital literacies. This framework must be resilient enough to include both those literacies no longer culturally or technologically relevant, as well as accommodating those that may be developed in future. It would appear to be very difficult, if not impossible, to define a single new literacy that would do the same job as a matrix of digital literacies. If such a definition was to avoid being an umbrella term it would need to be so lengthy as to be unwieldy and unhelpful in practice. A semi-fluid, community-accepted matrix of literacies could be flexible enough to be adaptable to various current contexts as well as having the ability to be updated as necessary in future. In Chapter 9 I attempt to introduce a matrix of the core elements of digital literacy to serve as a flexible framework able to be easily contextualised and adapted to specific situations. To a great extent, then, the matrix I present in Chapter 9 is influenced by the new literacies work of Martin, the media work of McLuhan, and the philosophical work of Quine and Rorty.


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