Monday, February 6, 2012

What does it mean to be literate?

Are you literate?

I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but maybe the question is better framed like this: “How illiterate are you?”

Technically, to be literate means you can simply read and write (that is, code and decode) in the representation system of your social group.  But even that simple definition assumes that there is a shared coding scheme.  If you’re a kid in the US in the early 21st century, that’s probably English; but it could also just as well be Spanish or Chinese. 

But it also has the sense of having knowledge or being competent in a specific area.  You can say, “he’s literate about wine,” “literate about netsuke,” or “literate about the Old Testament.”  A quick search reveals a whole host of literacies that are common these days:  media literacy, information literacy, financial, bible, multicultural, interactive, news, environmental...  on and on.  

So let me ask you again: Are you literate…. in all of these different *kinds* of literacies?  Which do you choose to be literate in?  

Let’s see: Which of these can you read & write? 

لا أتكلم العربية   


life←{↑1 ⍵∨.3 4=+/,¯1 0 1∘⊖¯1 0 1.⌽⊂⍵}    

Well, of course.  I don’t read those scripts either.  So the real idea of literacy is to be “literate with respect to a given major coding system in your social group.”    (Those unusual texts read:  “I don’t speak Arabic,” “I don’t speak Chinese,” and an APL implementation of the game of Life.) 

How about topic literacy?  Can you name the top wine producers in the Los Carneros region?   The three main kinds of netsuke?  The mother of Ishmael? 

Probably not.  But all this is not to prove that you’re illiterate, but just to make the point that we’re all illiterate with respect to a culture, a body of knowledge, or a technology we don’t understand.   To put it conversely, we’re only literate over a smallish amount of information.  There’s a lot out there, though, and it seems to me there’s actually a new kind of literacy that we need to understand. 

As I mentioned last week,  even if you know how to research something, you still need to know a little bit about the structure of how to search.  Searching for the answers to the questions above isn't that hard... but it requires that you know how to search.  

And this is that new kind of literacy I was talking about—knowing how-to-search and knowing-what-to-search. 

These days, with the flood of information we live with, it’s not enough just to be able to read and write whatever might fall into your hands.  Reading—really reading with insight and understanding—requires the ability to read-in-depth, and that means looking stuff up.  Writing—again, really writing with care and insight, means looking up more stuff or verifying that what you’re writing is accurate. 

People who are good at search and retrieval not only save time, but are far more likely to find (and create) higher quality, more credible, more useful content.  More importantly, they can ask questions that were impossible just a few years ago.  The biggest shift in the past few years has been the transformation of questions that were difficult to answer, but are essentially quick lookups.  We have changed the impossible question into the instant answer—but only if you know how.   

In a sense, that’s my mission—to help people become better searchers, beyond just the basic skill of knowing how to make Google dance.  My goal is to help people understand the larger issues at play here—how to be a literate person now, and now to be continually learning how to be literate as changes happen in the future.  This is the idea of *metaliteracy*—knowing how to be literate about your own literacy. 

Why should you care about meta-literacy?  Here’s a thing worth knowing.  The rate of introduction of new media, new genres, and new technology for reading & writing is pretty high now, and is continually increasing.  Think about it for a second:  How many of the media technologies that you use on a daily basis weren’t around 10 years ago?  YouTube, Google News, FaceBook, Google+, podcasting, screencasting, IM, iPads… these all really date to around 2004-2006.  But more are coming all the time.  Every week sees the introduction of some new kind of thing to read. 

More importantly, how many of the methods you use to read/write in these media existed a decade ago?  It’s now commonplace for a “swipe” gesture to do something on your phone or tablet.  Gestures have been around for decades in the research literature, but now it’s a interaction method that most *literate* people understand—it’s how you get to the next page. 

Metaliteracy skills are how you will navigate information in the future.  In essence, just to stay up with the stream of new media types, you’ll have to constantly learn how the new media works Consider: What’s the equivalent of “fast forward” in a video, a podcast, or a traditional book-bound codex? How do you refer to a particular passage of text in an electronic document?  The idea of “page number” falls apart on tablet computer with resizable fonts.  (Do we need to revert to a chapter & verse notation to identify text passages in our new texts?  Or will we just rely on reader’s ability to Control-F “find” the passage?)   

Literacy transcends just text.  Of course, it has for quite a while—we just tend to not talk about figures and diagrams that have always been part of the document.    Literacy transcends just medium.  The skills for reading newspapers are somewhat different than those needed for books, especially as books continue to evolve.  And this will be true for new media going forward.  Do you really know how to read and write social media? 

Another example: With an elegant first publication, PushPopPress just launched (as opposed to “published”) a new “full-length feature” digital book, “Our Choice.”  It’s a wonderfully genre-bending thing that has interactive graphics, embedded videos, and text that weaves through and with all the media.  “Reading” this kind of text is very different than traditional reading—you turn the “page” with a swipe gesture, but go “into subsections” with a pinch-expand gesture.  What was once a footnote is now an animation of how geothermal works, or an interactive visualization of wind energy resources.   Audio isn’t just layered on, it’s integral to the work. 

So.. What do you really need to know to be literate?  You need to understand at least that the technology—that is, the medium—is substantially different.  “Our Choice,” like other web-based software, can be modified each time you launch it.  I don’t know if they’ll do that or not, but it’s very possible, just as Amazon wiped-out copies of “1984” from Kindle owners who had purchased the text. When a question of whether or not the seller actually had copyright, Amazon just removed the app… um… the *text*… from the device.  Of course, it’s deeply ironic that it was “1984.”   And of course, the ways in which you read such a text is very different than the way you read the original “1984.”  Imagine a PushPopPress edition of “1984,” with links to all of the glosses, the movies, the interviews, the radio broadcasts, and learned commentary.  It’s not just text anymore, and it’s not a fixed corpus, and it’s not just a page-turner.  You need to change your understanding of documents and what it means to read one. 

Metaliteracy means that you know how to organize your own learning around literacy.  This will be vitally important as media kinds flourish, change, and pass away.  While being literate is something we take for granted, knowing how to drive your own literacy learning and understanding of what it means to BE literate will be essential.  If you don’t pay attention to your literacy, it would be easy for you to miss important elements of reading and writing in the new media. 

Do you agree?  What do YOU think it means to be literate now?



  1. Meaty topic and good points. My 2 ¢:
    Interesting /Facebook ad - the realities of Our Choice; for example, Gore sitting on the Apple Board and information/packaging being used as propaganda (not a pejorative, just descriptive) instead of a foundation for individual enlightenment/literacy, clouds the promise of what Apple is attempting with their iBook work. Maybe it is meant as a cautionary tale.
    What Facebook intends for Push Pop Press is less clear? But then, everybody has an agenda - hope they don't be evil.;-0

    a few helpful refs.-

    Have found these a couple relevant thoughts on this topic from as far back as 2007 - Wesch has some insights from the class experience.
    And Fry works the ear/eye worm.

    it seems counter-intuitive, but one key to *metaliteracy* seems to be finding time away from the screen as the volume and technique of moving and sifting the"stuff" can swiftly subsume. One concern i see is that targeted/tailored/massaged information will loose a sense of commonality - and what separates monologue from dialogue will be lost.. but it will look cool as hell and be interactive in a virtual sense...
    have to push away and take a walk. It is a constant balancing act to avoid Koyaanisqatsi... and time travel to 1984.

  2. literacy - read the classics, get some insights, hang around younger people who "get" new media and discuss life with them, notice patterns, get more insights, keep doing your life energetically and with compassion.

  3. You may be interested in a paper we wrote on this topic called "Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy" in College & Research Libraries Journal:

  4. I agree with you Dan. You have many great insights! I feel that being literate isn't just learning and knowing how to read and write. Today being literate means going above and beyond the basic reading and writing. It is knowing at least a little bit about financing, politics, languages, ect. It is searching for something whether it is an article and knowing that whoever wrote it is creditable and knows what he/she is talking about. Technology is has a part in being literate. As technology rises, people are expected to know more due to the fact that it is right in front of their eyes.

    As a future educator, I know that students are now expected to know more material than years before. As years go by, students expectations go higher and higher. Students knowing how to read and write isn't enough anymore, they need to know how to analyze at a younger age, know the difference between credible articles. As expectations rise the less motivated students get due to the fact that teachers push for high test scores, use worksheets all the time or not enough activities. My nephew who is in preschool knows his abc's, numbers, write his name, write basic words and is learning how to read. However, his teacher says its not enough. My sister reads to him everyday and provides numerous activities for him to learn how to read and be up to standards. Before this would have been enough, but now expectations are rising.

  5. I agree with what Dan is saying. To be literate today does not only mean being able to read and write. A person may be able to read and write but if they cannot comprehend what they are reading or writing they may as well be using a foreign language that they do not know. To me, being literate is being able to understand the things that are going on around you. A person can have a PhD from Harvard but if they cannot figure out how to use an iPad they are iPad illiterate. Literacy pertains to everything around you not just reading and writing.

  6. I saw your lecture at Princeton last night. In one of the slides early on "API Docs" was listed twice,once in each column . Was that meant to be intentional, accidental or part of a test? If so, I may be the only one who noticed.
    Just curious.

    1. Ah... good catch. It's a typo in my slides. I'll fix it up today! Thanks!

  7. I agree with what Dan is saying. To be literate today does not only mean being able to read and write. A person may be able to read and write but if they cannot comprehend what they are reading or writing they may as well be using a foreign language that they do not know. To me, being literate is being able to understand the things that are going on around you. A person can have a PhD from Harvard but if they cannot figure out how to use an iPad they are iPad illiterate. Literacy pertains to everything around you not just reading and writing.

    I absolutely agree with what Dan is saying here. Reading and writing does not qualify as being full literate these days. Comprehension of the materials that we are looking at, making, or writing is just as important nowadays, if not more important. One can have as many skills as they want and still not be literate in today's world and be successful in it. In my opinion literacy IS the world around you and understanding the things that encompass you. In this day and age, a lot of that is electronic and if you don't understand the intricacies of the modern world and the modern information age, then you simply are not literate in the modern world. Without this literacy, you are blind to so many things around you and will not be able to source the data and knowledge that is out there at our finger tips and won't be able to decipher this data. Literacy is the knowledge to know to check sources and know where to search. It is knowing a little bit of background knowledge on a lot of things that give you a step ahead of the learning curve.

  8. I agree with Dan that being literate is not about being able to read and write but comprehending the information is most important. He makes a great example with the use of researching something on the internet. You can type any title into the Google search box, but you have to know-what your searching. Therefore, your out of luck of learning about anything. I would think that this is toward students only, but in-actuality its all people. Like Dan stated, " we are illiterate to things we don't understand." I am illiterate to most foreign languages. Without this literacy, we are people that can read and write, but people that will not be able to comprehend, understand, and learn from the knowledge that is given to us.

  9. I agree with Dan. In today's society, we have to be literate in more ways than one. Simply because you know how to read and write, does not necessarily mean that they will be able to function in our technological society. To me, being literate in today's world means that you can jump from one world to another without much trouble; in essence being able to know how to navigate through the internet, but also knowing when to use it.

  10. I couldn’t agree more. Being “literate” is NOT just about being well educated on things like how to read and write. In our modern society, to be literate is to understand the basics of these skills and grow beyond their boundaries. Knowing different languages is an important skill needed to be literate, as well as understanding simple tasks that weren’t so simple 20 years ago. Overall, to be literate, one must become engrossed in technology. I think it is important to realize the importance of technology, and utilize it to the best of our knowledge—and it we do not know it, LEARN IT!
    After all, technology is our future. It is always changing and there are so many things that you can do with it!

  11. I agree with what Dan is saying. Yes being literate in the old sense simply met knowing how to read and write. But now a days being illiterate can simply mean not being able what the others around you can do. Meaning that alot of the new generation now sees the older generations as illiterate because many of them do not know how to search the world wide web, or even text message on a cell phone. Both of these things are very important because they are quickly growing in to the highest used forms of communication. Skills that are quickly turning in to a big necessity in both the cyber and real world.