Chapter 5 - The ambiguities of digital literacy

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Wordle of Chapter 5
“From the weakness of our senses we cannot judge the truth.” (Anaxagoras)

As we saw in Chapter 4, ‘digital literacy’ remains an ambiguous term despite having a longer history than other, related, terms. In a similar way to the term ‘digital native’, the use of the term ‘digital literacy’ can be seen as existing within (what I shall introduce in this chapter as) a ‘continuum of ambiguity’ that features productive, creative and generative parts. These terms are not merely vague, but ambiguous in ways originally identified by Empson (1930:2004) and subsequently augmented by Robinson (1941) and Abbott (1997).<ref> I had been struggling with the ambiguous nature of digital and new literacies when, serendipitously, I came across a remaindered version of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in a bookshop. This sparked more widely-applicable ideas and the discovery, after some research, of work in the area by Robinson (1941) and Abbott (1997).</ref>

This chapter explores Empson’s seven types of ambiguity, originally used in literary criticism, along with subsequent work in the area. The concept of ‘digital literacy’ is juxtaposed with the ‘digital native/immigrant’ dichotomy that has followed a trajectory through the three stages of ambiguity. The idea of ‘dead metaphors’ is used to explain those terms that have dropped out of the continuum through overuse and reside mainly in dictionaries rather than in productive discourse. My aim is to show that almost all terms are defined in ways that could be considered ambiguous; as we saw in Chapter 3, this can be true of well-known terms such as (traditional, print) ‘literacy’. Such ambiguity, I shall argue, is especially important to consider when it comes to the examples of ‘digital literacy’ and Prensky’s ‘digital native/immigrant’ dichotomy. Given the inescapability of ambiguity, I shall make the case for embracing ambiguity and using it in a productive and pragmatic way.

Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity

We are surrounded by ambiguity and vagueness in everyday life. “Ambiguity” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary<ref></ref> as the “capability of being understood in two or more ways” whereas if something is “vague” it is “couched in general or indefinite terms” being “not definitely or precisely expressed”. The two terms, therefore, are very closely linked Empson (1930:2004), for example, does not draw a distinction between them, setting out seven types of ambiguity of which several could be argued to be examples of ‘vagueness’.

Empson’s seven types of ambiguity can be seen to form a continuum through which terms may pass. This continuum has three reasonably-distinct parts, from the most ambiguous to the least ambiguous: generative ambiguity, creative ambiguity and productive ambiguity. The use of the term ‘digital literacy’ has changed since it was popularised by Paul Gilster (1997) but, as we will see, it remains mid-way through this continuum of ambiguity. The term ‘digital native’, by way of contrast, is further along this continuum, despite it being a younger term.

The continuum of ambiguity is given in diagrammatic form below. Ambiguous terms suffer an imbalance in the denotative (surface-level) information and connotative (symbolic) information conveyed to individuals. As the usage of terms becomes less ambiguous they can be seen as moving towards the right of the overlap in the diagram:

Figure 5 - A simplified, overlapping version of the spectrum of ambiguities

In this chapter, therefore, I will explore how the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital literacy’ have evolved with definitions that put them, at different times, in one or more of these parts of the continuum of ambiguity.

Generative ambiguity

Aristotle believed he had an answer to the difficulties presented by ambiguity. “Since we cannot introduce the realities themselves into our discussions,” he stated, “but have to use words as symbols for them, we suppose that what follows in the words will follow in the realities too.” The problem is that “whereas words and the quantity of sentences are limited, realities are unlimited in number”.<ref>Aristotle, quoted in Robinson, 1941, p.144</ref> This, then, is the first part of the continuum: an individual gives a name to a nebulous collection of thoughts and ideas. Examples include noticing a similarity between two objects or ideas, or having a similar feeling when in the presence of two otherwise completely different people. Often the connection between the two or more ideas or concepts can be difficult to explain to other people. This left-hand side of the continuum is most closely related to vagueness; I will name this part ‘Generative ambiguity’.

As we began to see in Chapter 2 through the work of Tornero (2004) and Buckingham (2006), there are three main problems with ambiguous terms. The first is subtle: the symbol can be mistaken for the thing signified. In any field relating to technology the particular technology can become more important than what it affords. Second, the proliferation of terms confuses the landscape, with terms being either all-embracing or narrow in focus. Third, borrowing existing words and established terms (for example ‘literacy’) as part of the definition can hinder debate. As the number and applications of terms multiply, its descriptive (and therefore useful) power diminishes.

This ambiguity regarding the application and meaning of terms often takes the form of a ‘zeugma’. Zeugmas are figures of speech that join two or more parts of a sentence into a single noun, such as ‘digital literacy’. It is unclear here whether the emphasis is upon the ‘digital’ (and therefore an example of a prozeugma) or upon the ‘literacy’ (and therefore a hypozeugma). Which is the adjective?

Within the part of the continuum of ambiguity we have identified as ‘Generative ambiguity’, no aspect of the ambiguous term is fixed. This leads to definitions of terms that are so ambiguous as to be almost vague in the way discussed in the introduction. Some definitions, for example, assume that the ‘digital’ takes precedent (often leading to functionalist, procedural definitions) whilst others assume that it is the ‘literacy’ part that is important (usually leading to more of a ‘critical literacies’ approach where the digital element is played-down).

Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930:2004) documented the various ways in which language (within a literary setting) could be ambiguous. This ranged from the least ambiguous (metaphor: two things are said to be alike) through to the most ambiguous (two words, in context, mean opposite things). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll, 1865) is ambiguous at the level of Empson’s sixth and seventh types of ambiguity. Take, for instance, the Queen in the story who admonishes Alice for a lack of imagination, stating that at Alice’s age she would often believe six impossible things before breakfast. Readers are often left in a situation where either a statement sounds nonsensical so they have to invent the meaning (the sixth type of ambiguity), or two words within the same context mean opposite things (the seventh type of ambiguity).<ref>For example: “The executioner's argument was, that you couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn't going to begin at his time of life. The King's argument was, that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren't to talk nonsense.” (Carroll, 1865, Kindle location 745)</ref> These two ambiguities, along with the fifth type of ambiguity (the author discovers their idea in the act of writing) form the part of the continuum of ambiguity I have identified as ‘Generative ambiguity’ (see Appendix 1)

One of the many definitions given by Gilster in Digital Literacy is, “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers” (Gilster, 1997, p.215). This can be seen as a form of the sixth type of ambiguity as, in defining the ambiguous term, Gilster introduces yet more ambiguity. What counts as a ‘format’, a ‘source’, or even a ‘computer’? Gilster evidently has in mind something that makes the term ‘digital literacy’ make coherent sense in his particular context. Those outside his context, however, may struggle to make this definition readily applicable.

Generative ambiguity is using old words in new ways. Robinson, who built upon Empson’s work, explains succinctly this paradox:

Here then is the difficulty; we hope to get a perfectly new idea from time to time; but we can only use the old words with which to get it, or a new one that has to be defined in terms of the old; and the old words only mean the old things. So we are apparently condemned always only to rearrange the old notions.” (Robinson, 1941, p.149)

How, then, can we ever express originality? Are we destined for an eternity of ‘deckchair-rearrangement’? Robinson explains that originality is, in fact, possible by hinting at new ideas through the use of old words in new ways. This works through the principle of relational univocity, a “reaction of the context with the old sense” (p.149) which destabilises the old meaning of a word through its use in a new context (or being yoked with another in a novel way). Robinson cites Aristotle’s explanation of ‘healthy’ as an example of relational univocity: ‘healthy’ can be applied to things as diverse as ‘healthy’ exercise (causation), a ‘healthy’ complexion (indication), and ‘healthy’ roses (possession) (p.143). “[E]ach particular case has to be learned from the context,” states Robinson, with relational univocity being “a bond that holds together the various meanings of an ambiguous word” (p.143). Indeed, it is through such bonds that terms move from the Generative to the Creative form of ambiguity; aspects of the hinted idea coalescing in ways that can be transmitted such they leave a similar impression upon others. An example of relational univocity is given by ETS (the US Educational Testing Service)when they define ‘digital literacy’ as:

[T]he ability to use digital technology, communication tools and/or networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society.' ( It comprises 'the ability to use technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate, and communicate information, and the possession of a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information.” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.23)

This definition uses ‘technology‘ as a shorthand for simultaneously a tool, a technique and an attitude, and is clearly an attempt at using relational univocity to convey an otherwise hard-to-grasp and rather nebulous concept.

Abbott, acutely aware that Empson’s seven types of ambiguity pertained to literary creations, attempted to provide a positivist framework for ambiguity in the social sciences. He noted that “even though positivist social science has been shown to be in principle impossible, the vast majority of social-science effort (and funding) is in fact spent doing it.” (Abbott, 1997, p.358). He therefore considers ambiguity in a formal manner, coming up with seven types of ambiguity that can be mapped directly onto Empson’s earlier structure. These later conceptualisations of ambiguity are useful in that they not only give names to the seven types of ambiguity but provide real-world (as opposed to literary) examples of ambiguity in practice.

Figure 6 - Trajectory of ambiguities

At the level of the fifth, sixth and seventh type of ambiguity, Abbott indicates that individuals have to do some real work to make sense of the idea being grasped at. The most ambiguous form, that which Abbott names Interactional ambiguity, occurs when “the meaning of an indicator is ambiguously defined by the interactional context of its production” (Abbott, 1997, p.365). The example given by Abbott is when the author of a survey has in mind a particular audience when framing a question but, when it comes to be answered, the interviewee is unsure as to which audience that is. This maps directly onto Empson’s seventh type (two words in the same context mean opposite things); the word ‘wicked’, for instance, in youth culture means exactly the opposite (cool, fun) to more standard definitions (wrong, evil).

Abbott’s sixth form of ambiguity, which he names Contextual ambiguity is produced, he states, “out of the manifold indeterminacy of the variable correlation matrix” (Abbott, 1997, p.364). In other words, variables in one context (e.g. ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’) may be linked with certain other variables (e.g. ‘curricula’), whereas in another context they would be linked with different variables (e.g. ‘economic competitiveness’). This is particularly problematic with the concept of ‘digital literacy’ given the indeterminate nature of what both ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ mean in any given context. Again, this maps onto Empson’s scale, with his sixth formulation being a statement which ‘says nothing’ so readers have to invent their own meaning. Using the example of ‘digital literacy’, readers think they know what is meant by the term, but because of its highly contextualised nature (and the difficultly in expressing this context in totality) it cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way.

The fifth type of ambiguity defined by Abbott is Narrative ambiguity, occurring because of the ways in which the fluctuations of everyday life can shape one’s response to a given stimulus. Abbott gives the example of interviews which come “at a particular moment in a life narrative, a moment that shapes responses decisively” (Abbott, 1997, p.363). Empson’s fifth type of ambiguity involves an author discovering their idea in the act of writing which, if extrapolated and generalised, is what Abbott is also concerned with: ambiguity resulting from natural fluctuations in human narratives. An example of this is Erstad’s attempted definition of digital literacy which, instead of clarifying the issue, seems to become more ambiguous as each word is added:

One of the key challenges in [developments of everyday practices] is the issue of digital literacy. This relates to the extent to which citizens have the necessary competence to take advantage of the possibilities given by new technologies in different settings. (Erstad 2008, p.177)

The tension between the connotative and denotative elements of the definition exists due to the associated tension between making oneself clear and making the definition as widely applicable as possible.

These, then, are the three types of ambiguity within the Generative phase of ambiguity. They are ‘generative’ in the sense that they involve the coalescing of ideas, the coming together of various elements out of which emerges something new. The ambiguity is fragile and tenuous, held in tension between various ideas and elements and, because of this, difficult to communicate. Ideas in the Generative ambiguity phase require a great deal of effort in order to move them into the phase of Creative ambiguity, where they can be understood and worked upon by a larger number of people.

Creative ambiguity

Terms defined in such a way so as to be part of the continuum identified as ‘Creative ambiguity’ are less ambiguous than those within Generative ambiguity. Definitions within the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum are more readily-understandable and applicable to contexts other than the very narrow one often used in definitions within Generative Ambiguity. Creative ambiguity covers Empson’s third and fourth types of ambiguity, those which Abbott names ‘Durational ambiguity’ and ‘Syntactic ambiguity’ respectively.

The fourth type of ambiguity, the more ambiguous of the two ambiguities within the Creative part of the continuum, Abbott names Durational ambiguity. This arises as a result of the unknown temporal extent of observed indicators, Abbott giving the example of attitudes specific to a certain group, class or community not acquired “in a moment... [but] only after a substantial period” (Abbott, 1997, p.363). This is an ambiguity that can be seen readily with the concept of ‘digital natives’ fitting, as it does, so neatly into the nature/nurture debate; ‘native’ is not only a term relating to natural ‘ability’ but to status. It also explains the ambiguity caused by the elision of ‘digital’ as sophisticated and ‘native’ as primitive.

Empson explains that an ambiguity of the fourth type happens when “two or more meanings of a statement do not agree among themselves, but combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.133). It is “the most important aspect of a thing, not the most complicated” of which we are conscious, he continues, as “the subsidiary complexities, once they have been understood, merely leave an impression in the mind” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.133). Take, for example Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum. It states that the goal of digital literacy is:

to teach and assess basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities. (Microsoft, no date)

This, to use Empson’s phrase, ‘leaves an impression in the mind’ without the move from ‘basic computer concepts’ to ‘social and economic opportunities’ being made explicit. It is close to what Robinson calls ‘sliding ambiguity’ and which I will consider presently.

Within the part of the continuum identified as ‘Creative ambiguity’ one aspect of the ambiguous term is fixed, much in the way a plank of wood nailed to a wall would have 360-degrees of movement around a single point. This point of reference allows others to co-construct meaning and the term to enter a wider community for discussion and debate. As Empson suggests, if the term is re-formulated in a way that is slightly less ambiguous than the fourth type, then this becomes an example of the third type of ambiguity: “two ideas, which are connected only by being both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simultaneously” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.102). The ambiguity persists due to the tension caused by “the sharpness of distinction between the two meanings” (ibid.). This could cause individuals and communities to ‘talk past one another’ if, for example, one used ‘digital’ as a substitute for ‘digital lifestyle’ whilst another used ‘digital’ as shorthand for ‘digital hardware and software’.

Syntactic ambiguity, the name Robinson gives to the third type of ambiguity, is a favourite of politicians as it enables them to extract themselves from potentially-awkward situations. Syntactic ambiguity, explains Robinson, arises from “changing causal contexts [which] create an implicit ambiguity on the level of indicators” (1997, p.363). To put this more clearly, if a term may reasonably be interpreted in more than one way then it displays ‘syntactic ambiguity’. This is an extremely common form of ambiguity, occurring due to the relationship created between words when writers are short of space. Amusing examples of this type are referred to as ‘crash blossoms’ (Zimmer, 2010) after a Japanese headline that read, ambiguously, “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”. The author, Zimmer, believed that the word ‘blossoms’ pertained to ‘crash’ rather than the violinist. Other examples, of which there are many, include “I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola” (from The Kinks song, Lola). Whilst the definition of digital literacy by Erstad we saw earlier fits into the Generative phase of ambiguity, the portmanteau term ‘Electracy’ (Erstad, 2003) fits here within Productive ambiguity as an example of different contexts - in this case between Norway and the English-speaking world - creating ‘an implicit ambiguity on the level of indicators’.

As with relational univocity, there is a boundary between the parts of the ambiguity continuum marked out as Creative ambiguity and Productive ambiguity. In this case the term is what Robinson (1941) names Sliding ambiguity. This occurs when a term covers a wide area and refers alternately to larger and smaller arts of that area. Such a term embraces a complex of conceptions, put together under one word because we feel them to be somehow connected, or because we have not clearly distinguished them (Robinson, 1941, p.142). The earlier example of Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum could equally be seen as an example of the third type of ambiguity, and therefore a candidate for Robinson’s Sliding ambiguity, as the macro (societal change) and the micro (basic computer skills) are considered simultaneously.

Whilst a level of consensus can exist for a given community within the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum, it nevertheless remains highly contextual. It is dependent, to a great extent, upon what is left unsaid - especially upon the unspoken assumptions about the “subsidiary complexities” that exist at the level of impression. The unknown element in the ambiguity (for example, time, area, or context) means that the term cannot ordinarily yet be operationalised within contexts other than communities who share prior understandings and unspoken assumptions.

Productive ambiguity

In order for an ambiguous term to be operationalised, in order for it to be able to ‘do some work’ and make a difference, it must be redefined in such a way as to enter the Productive ambiguity part of the continuum. This is the least ambiguous part of the continuum, an area in which more familiar types of ambiguity such as metaphor are used (either consciously or unconsciously) in definitions. Empson defines the second type of ambiguity, for example, as occurring when “two or more meanings are resolved into one” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.48). This second type of ambiguity (which Abbott calls Ambiguity of locus) is the most commonly-observable example of ambiguity, believes Empson. Examples tend to exhibit a directness of feeling whilst the concept behind the feeling is ambiguous. The concept may exhibit either psychological or logical complexity (or both) but this is masked by the seemingly-intuitive nature of the term. Abbott explains that this type of ambiguity springs from one thing being taken as indicating something about another. He gives the example of divorce rates being taken to indicate something about the status of ‘the family,’ or the erosion of ‘community stability,’ for example. “The ambiguity about the meaning of the indicator arises in part through the inclusion of families within communities” (Abbott, 1997, p.362); in other words, one ambiguous term is situated within another.

This second type of ambiguity can be seen in many definitions of ‘digital literacy’ including that given by the European Commission. They stress the importance of using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in everyday life, going on to state (as we saw in Chapter 2):

To participate and take advantage, citizens must be digitally literate - equipped with the skills to benefit from and participate in the Information Society. This includes both the ability to use new ICT tools and the media literacy skills to handle the flood of images, text and audiovisual content that constantly pour across the global networks. (Europe's Information Society Thematic Portal, 2007)

Digital literacy is couched here within a wider ambiguous term - that of the ‘Information Society’. The ambiguity about the meaning of digital literacy arises in part through the inclusion of literacy within a discussion of society.

This second type ambiguity (Abbott’s Ambiguity of locus) would also help explain the concept of ‘digital natives’ moving from the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum of ambiguity to Productive part. Once Marc Prensky defined a ‘digital native’ as someone who was born after 1980 and is adept in using and communicating with digital devices, the converse of this, the ‘digital immigrant’, was easy to identify. However, as Abbott’s work helps explain, this is one thing being taken to indicate something about another. An uncontentious observation that children are more likely to be immersed in digital environments is writ large (and more contentiously) as being some kind of ‘societal step-change’. Prensky’s dichotomous terms enter the Productive part of the continuum of ambiguity despite, in effect, being one ambiguous term (‘digital immigrant’) within another (‘digital native’).

Bennett, Maton & Kervin believe the widespread acceptance and adoption of the ‘digital native/immigrant’ dichotomy as saying more about society rather than the young people it attempts to describe. They believe it to be “an academic form of moral panic” as “arguments are often couched in dramatic language… and pronounce stark generational differences” (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008, p.782). Prensky’s hyperbolic statement that we have reached a ‘singularity’ from which we can never go back, they believe, “close[s} down debate, and in doing so allow[s] unevidenced claims to proliferate” (p.783). Certainly, the ‘dawn of the digital native’ has been used to explain everything from declining literacy levels to the rise in identified cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Johnson, 2008).

The very least ambiguous type of ambiguity in the continuum is Empson’s first type. It is straight metaphor, something Empson calls “the fundamental situation” whereby “a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.2). The term, continues Empson, is not stressed in relation to the rest of the sentence “but as if to fill out the sentence... signal[ling] to the reader what he is meant to take for granted” (Empson, 1930:2004, p.3). Robinson names this Naive ambiguity, citing Plato’s Socratic dialogues as an example:

The early dialogues frequently represent Socrates as seeking for definitions of terms. Now, before we seek to define a term we should make sure that it has only one sense, or at least which of its senses we are trying to define. But Socrates never does this in the Platonic dialogues. In every case he puts the question and proceeds to look for an answer with the most perfect coincidence that the word means the same thing every time it is used. (Robinson, 1941, p.140)

This is the same type of ambiguity that Abbott names Semantic ambiguity, arising from the assumption that one thing ‘means’ another and that this meaning is stable. In a similar way to Socrates, ambiguity surrounding the meaning of terms is seen as a bad thing, as something to be avoided. Instead, Abbott presents Semantic ambiguity, the first type of ambiguity, as a fact of life. Years in school, for example, can ‘mean’ education “in the sense that... time spent in school results in more or less monotonic increase in education”. At the same time, however, years in school also ‘means’ “exposure to popular culture [and] bureaucracy” as well as “reduced time available for criminal activity” (Abbott, 1997, p.361). It is a “simple type of multiple meaning... a situation where one fact means several things at once without those things resolving into any one meaning” (ibid.).

An example of this duality of meaning is evident in Lanham’s early definition of Digital Literacy:

[Digital Literacy is] being skilled at deciphering complex images and sounds as well as the syntactical subtleties of words. (Lanham, 1995, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008a, p.198)

Although this definition sounds reasonable, upon further inspection it is far from clear that ‘deciphering complex images and sounds’ is a skill that can be grouped together with ‘deciphering words’ without further explanation.

When within the Productive part of the continuum of ambiguities terms have a stronger denotative element than in the Creative and Generative phases. Stability is achieved through alignment, often due to the pronouncement of an authoritative voice or outlet. This can take the form of a well-respected individual in a given field, government policy, or mass-media convergence on the meaning of a term. Such alignment allows a greater deal of specificity, with rules, laws, formal processes and guidelines created as a result of the term’s operationalisation. As I have argued in Chapter 4, and will return to again in Chapter 9, this can be achieved through the contextualisation of a core matrix of configurable ‘elements’ of digital literacies.

Movement through the whole continuum of ambiguity is akin to a substance moving through the states of gas, liquid and solid. Generative ambiguity is akin to the ‘gaseous‘ phase, whilst Creative ambiguity is more of a ‘liquid‘ phase. The move to the ‘solid’ phase of Productive ambiguity comes through a process akin to when a liquid ‘sets’. Ambiguous terms can, and often do, fall out of the continuum of ambiguity becoming, to use Rorty’s imagery, like a coral reef, “a platform and foil for new metaphors” (Rorty, 1989, p.118).

Summing up

Where do current definitions of ‘digital literacy’ reside on this continuum? Have definitions, much like definitions of ‘digital native’ been formulated in progressively less ambiguous ways, moving from Generative ambiguity through Creative ambiguity and into Productive ambiguity? It would appear that this is not the case. Whereas Prensky’s ‘digital native/immigrant’ is akin to what Richard Rorty would define as ‘dead metaphor’ (formulaic and unproductive), the term ‘digital literacy’ continues to be defined and re-defined in new and innovative ways. The early ‘academic’ writing about the concept of ‘digital natives’ was not peer-reviewed, often appearing in magazines for teachers and librarians and featuring a journalistic or even hyperbolic style:

If television was a defining influence over the boomer generation, what is shaping the generation of students entering higher education today? A growing number of educators are recognizing that this generation has been heavily influenced by the pervasive digital media that has surrounded them literally since birth. Marc Prensky coined the term “Digital Native” (Presky [sic], 2001) to describe this generation. The moniker communicates clearly that these are not subtle changes to have occurred, but instead this is a generation of students who act - and perhaps even think - differently than those that are educating them - the so-called “Digital Immigrants. (Gaston, 2006, p.12)

More recent peer-reviewed papers, such as the work of Bennett, Maton & Kervin cited above, have pointed out the lack of an evidence base for Prensky’s claims. Given the devastating critique of the use of ‘digital native’ being equivalent to a ‘moral panic’, the term is a Rortyian dead metaphor in the world of serious academia. It remains, however, a widely-cited term in magazines for teachers and librarians.

‘Digital literacy’ is also a term with different usage depending on the community within which it is used. The difference here, however, is that it is a term that originated in academic research and has filtered through to practitioners and other interested parties. It is a term that is used in various ways depending upon context: some definitions equate ‘digital literacy’ with computer skills, whilst others see it involving the kind of criticality more usually ascribed to ‘media literacy.’ The world of academia may be slow-moving, but there is a lag beyond this in terms of research filtering down to practitioners. Many teachers, for instance, still believe in some notion of fixed ‘learning styles’, despite the concept being widely discredited in the academic literature even before the ‘digital native/immigrant’ dichotomy.

In this chapter, towards the centre point of the thesis, we have seen that ambiguous terms can be placed on a continuum of ambiguity informed by the work of Empson, Robinson and Abbott. Using ‘digital literacy’ as the main example, and the concept of the ‘digital native’ by way of contrast, the various ways in which such terms can be ambiguous have been illustrated. Dividing the continuum of ambiguities into three parts, I have identified ‘Generative ambiguity’ as the part of the continuum that includes definitions of terms involving strongly-connotative elements. Those definitions of ambiguous terms that are more ‘balanced’ between the connotative and denotative elements fit, I believe, within the ‘Creative ambiguity’ part of the continuum of ambiguities. Those with strongly-denotative elements fit within the part of the continuum of ambiguities I have named ‘Productive ambiguity’.

In passing, I touched upon Rorty’s idea of the ‘dead metaphor’ and suggested that definitions of ambiguous terms may tend, through constant reformulation and redefinition, towards Productive ambiguity. Finally, it is worth noting Empson’s reminder that ambiguity is itself an ambiguous term:

Ambiguity itself can mean an indecision as to what you mean, an intention to mean several things, a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant [or] the fact that a statement has several meanings. (Empson, 1930:2004, p.5-6)

In this chapter I have made the case for a ‘continuum of ambiguities’ within which various definitions of ‘digital literacy’ reside. Such definitions, depending as they do upon changes in technology and shifting use of language, may move between different parts of the continuum. They may, indeed, cease to be part of the continuum, descend into cliché and become a ‘dead metaphor’ (perhaps to be revived later). The important insight in this chapter, I believe, is that because of its necessarily-ambiguous nature, ‘digital literacy’ can only be understood in an ‘ideological’ way. That is to say, in opposition to a more ‘autonomous’ understanding of the term, I would agree with Colin Lankshear in rejecting a single “essential literacy lying behind actual social practices involving texts” (Lankshear, 1999, no page). Literacy does not have an objective, unchanging nature, but “consists in the forms textual engagement takes within specific material contexts of human practice” (ibid.). As ambiguity when defining terms such as ‘digital literacy’ cannot be avoided it would be best to acknowledge, understand and, indeed, embrace it.


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