The kid enters the coffee shop and is greeted
excitedly by her friends. They jostle to exchange high fives, knuckle
greetings and finger snaps with her.
What is the cause of their admiration? Her Rocaway jeans? Her high tan
Jimmy Choo boots? Her Armani sun-glasses? Her Karl Lagerfeld jacket? Nah!
It is the gleaming silver object dangling from a pair of white wires plugged
into her ears.
It is an iPod, the must-have digital gadget of today's young people. With
this tiny digital audio player Apple stole Napster's thunder and replaced
the CD player as the cutting-edge portable music player of choice.
But if you think this is just another device for playing pre-recorded
music, think again. Within two years of the iPod's debut, developers had
created software to allow anyone to produce audio content -- words and
music -- for it and other portable digital players. This technology, known
as podcasting, turns consumers into producers, and every wannabe DJ and
talk-show host into broadcasters. It is a distribution channel that plugs
directly into the hippest, hottest communication network on the planet.
In advanced industrial countries, and increasingly in less-developed regions,
social life is being digitised. Cheap camera phones and videocams allow
everyday activities to be recorded and stored on personal computers or
online services; more and more conversations are conducted via email,
IM and SMS; private thoughts, opinions and reflections on public affairs
or private passions are instantly posted on weblogs. Because they are
in digital form, all these different types of record -- moving images,
photographs, sounds and texts -- can be stored on computers. And the Internet
makes it possible for all of this to be shared with family, friends and
Welcome to the agora of the 21st century, a space where a diverse array
of digital modes of communication intersect in cyberspace -- email, instant
messaging, text messaging, multimedia messaging, weblogging, audioblogging,
moblogging, mobcasting, podcasting.
Like it or not, this is the new cultural landscape for learning, entertainment,
and communicating with each other. And it is being constructed without
consultation with, or permission from, regulatory authorities or self-appointed
All well and good, but what is the point of all this digital g-soup when
school-leavers cannot spell and do sums, or believe Winston Churchill
was an insurance salesman? Relax. This is not the end of literacy, just
a groping towards a new kind of literacy, which is capable of fulfilling
the knowledge acquisition, informational and cultural needs of the digital
There is nothing immutable about the mental and manual competences that
constitute literacy. What it means to be literate has constantly changed
throughout the ages as economic, social and cultural necessities impose
new demands on the population. In addition, the number and classes of
people, who needed to possess these competences have changed. In ancient
Egypt, the ability to read and write, and therefore to manage the state,
was a monopoly of the priestly caste and court officials. On the other
hand, the assembly, the council and the court, the key institutions of
the first democracy in Athens, championed by the literate Pericles, were
made up primarily of ordinary people  (James 1956) who were mostly
educated in the oral, not the literate, culture of 5th century BC Greece.
In both cases the vast majority of the people did not need to be literate;
you did not need reading, writing and arithmetic to be a farmer, an artisan
or a soldier . The same was true in the ancient Chinese, Persian, Babylonian
and Roman empires.
The industrial age changed everything. The mass manufacturing of goods,
the introduction of machine tools and the technologizing of ancient craft
skills required a work force, which could read, write, and do sums. The
ceaseless need to innovate in order to remain competitive forced workers
to think critically and creatively about the industrial processes in which
they were engaged. This led them to invent new goods and technologies
to feed the insatiable engine of industrial capitalism. For the first
time in human history, education, both literary and technical, became
a job requirement.
Thus the invention of printing was a pre-requisite of the industrial age
 (Eisenstein 1982). Mechanical reproduction of texts was superseded
by mass production of books and newspapers to satisfy the growing need
for widespread diffusion of the elements of literacy required for industrial
production and social advancement.
Mass production of information and knowledge produced the mass media,
which by the end of the 19th century became a monolith that controlled
access to information about everyday life. Other information monopolies
arose during the period, most based on close and exclusive control of
specialized knowledge: trade guilds, which regulated the transmission
of craft skills; learned societies and associations, which regulated access
to scientific information and entry into the professions. These and other
institutions were important in codifying and regulating the competences,
which powered industrial production and commerce. However, the mass media
occupy a special place because of their central role in the organization
and control of social communications, and hence the structure of cultural,
political and economic life  (Innis 1964, 1972).
The trouble with monopolies is not only that they tend to centralize power,
but they also wield this power to enforce their definitions of reality
on the world. So the scientific establishment decrees that a particular
body of knowledge is "science", and everything else is hocus-pocus; the
medical authorities declare that a favoured corpus of practices is "medicine",
and all others are quackery; and the teaching profession holds that literacy
is the three "Rs", and evermore shall it be.
But these edicts are losing their force and authority as people first
challenge the information/knowledge monopolies and then develop their
own communication media to find things out for themselves and explore
truths other than received wisdom or the official version. Rather than
the established media talking to them, people are talking to one another
in their own self-created space, their own time and at their own speed
 (Gillmor 2004).
To participate in creating this autonomous space, you must possess not
only the print literacy of the industrial age but also the competences
required to engage in online conversations and be at ease with using 21st
century digital products and services.
What are the competencies that should be included in any model of literacy
for the digital age?
First, you should get used to interacting with screen-based devices for
sending, receiving and viewing digital information because this is the
way one interacts with the interface -- the collection of words, icons,
buttons, menus, and other symbols -- connecting the user to the database
which stores the data and the network which transmits it. To interact
with your computers, mobile phones, PDAs, media players etc requires that
you have the knowledge to understand these symbols and the tactile skills
to manipulate them to achieve a desired purpose e.g., open a document,
save a file, view a picture, play a song, send a message.
Second, you must be able to create a document, store it and retrieve it
at a later date. By "document" is meant any information element or object
in digital form -- words, pictures, sounds, still and moving images.
Third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the theory and practice of
hypermedia , (Nielsen 1995) because it is in this space that information
is communicated on the screens of computers and digital media devices.
A paper document allows only text and two-dimensional images, while radio
and television have been completely linear media. The hypermedia document,
now the standard form in which information is displayed and communicated,
is changing all that. By allowing interaction with non-linear, multi-dimensional
documents to take place, it has radically altered the practice of reading
Hypermedia is the electronic palette on which diverse information objects
-- texts, still and moving images and sound -- combine. Cross-referencing
devices called hyperlinks allow us to create a non-linear mode of information
production and consumption, which follows more closely the patterns of
thought. Hyperlinks are gateways to other "objects" -- click on one and
the desired object is retrieved and played. This is the typical organization
of a Web document.
But some features of a hypermedia document are counter-intuitive (or,
at least, contrary to the processes we have learned through paper-age
education) and so require new literacies in order to make sense of the
For example, a key feature of a hypermedia composition is that all objects
have equal status. They can therefore be read -- and possibly understood
-- in any order, so you can enter the hypermedia space at any point, and
structure your reading of the story in any manner you choose. As a result,
each individual reading experience is different, as are the connections
and associations made.
We have to learn how to use this space, to make sense of it. How do we
critically evaluate what we see and hear? How do we assign weight and
significance to the objects? Clearly, we need to learn to use a range
of tools to help us evaluate the accuracy, authority, completeness, bias
and timeliness of the information.
This goes against much that we know about written communication since
the invention of the codex, the form of the book that succeeded the scroll
as the repository of written knowledge and culture.
The codex transformed the way texts were written -- introducing page numbers,
chapters, indexing -- and therefore the way authors constructed their
work. It also changed the reading process: readers could now navigate
from one page to another with ease, quickly find specific items, mark
passages for future reference, and write while reading. The codex introduced
a linear order and sequence in which texts are to be read and understood
and a hierarchy of elements -- title page, imprint, contents page, preface,
introduction, main body, references, bibliography, appendices. To be literate
meant understanding these elements and what they signify.
The book is both receptacle and transmitter of knowledge. The change in
its material form, from scroll to codex, engendered a revolution in writing
and reading. People had to learn new skills in order to produce and consume
information and knowledge in the new form. The same is the case with the
change to a screen-based, hypertext form of information and knowledge
creation and dissemination, with one big difference.
The move from an oral to a literary culture was a drastic change from
social, collective learning to private, individual learning; from the
primacy of the voice to the primacy of the text; from understanding of
the world through public performances and storytelling to understanding
through private reading and personal reflection. Now these two modes are
united in cyberspace as hypermedia combines almost all aspects of oral
and literary cultures. Every minute of every day the Internet buzzes with
the sound of music and of voices in many tongues; with animations and
videos in glorious technicolor: with words and pictures; with the colour
of magic, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke .
Here is the genius of cyberspace: it has created a world of endless possibilities
by refusing to be constrained by what went before.
In most cosmologies, the world begins with the Word. In the pre-industrial
and industrial eras, two expressions of the Word, reading and writing,
have been central to people's notion of literacy. Digital technology does
not abolish literacy; what it augurs is a radical re-definition of it.
This is nothing new -- we have been there before. Think of the momentous,
world-changing shift from oral to print culture; think also of the changes
in writing instruments (stone, stick, pen), writing materials (bark, leaf,
clay tablet, parchment, paper), text production processes (from handwriting
to hot-metal printing, from lithography to laser printing) and the intellectual
and technical adjustments required to deal with them.
As the digitization of economic, social and cultural life gathers pace,
those who embrace and internalize the literacy of the digital age will
be so much better off than those who do not.
So if you are an educator, desperate to interest our iPod kid and her
friends in your remedial classes; a health information officer anxious
to get the message of safe sex to her and her cohorts; a training instructor
eager to recruit them on a job skills programme; get familiar with their
world. You will not be able to communicate with them if you do not.
1) See JAMES, C.L.R. 1956. Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy
in Ancient Greece. Correspondence, 2 (12) June. Available from: http://marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm
2) Even if they wanted to acquire literacy, they couldn't. Only rich individuals
and families could afford to buy books. Papyrus and parchment, the materials
on which most books in Europe were written until the introduction of paper
from China (via Korea, Japan, India, Baghdad and Damascus) in the 12th
century AD, were scarce and expensive commodities. Moreover, several ingredients'
the technique of papermaking, the invention of printing, the spread of
religion, public education and libraries, the development of the scientific
method, the Industrial Revolution etc--had to come together before mass
literacy became possible, desirable and necessary for societies. And it
took more than two thousand years after the first flowering of Athenian
democracy for these conditions to become a reality. (Note that the fabled
ancient libraries at Nineveh, Alexandria, Pergamum and Herculaneum were
for the use of clerics, scholars and rulers, not the masses).
3) See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change
(Cambridge University Press, 1982) for an excellent treatment of the way
the spread of printing contributed to the Protestant Reformation, the
Renaissance and the scientific revolution, and, therefore, modern liberal
democracies and the industrial society.
4) See Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (University of Toronto
Press, 1972) and The Bias of Communication (University of Toronto
Press, 1964) for a discussion of the relationship between the dominant
mode and technical properties of communication and the social, political
and economic organisation of society. Innis argues that fundamental changes
in social structures come about when the old, dominant form of communication
is challenged and replaced by new forms.
5) Dan Gillmor, former technology columnist on the San Jose Mercury News,
describes this movement in the arena of news gathering and dissemination
as "citizen journalism". See his book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism
by the People, for the People (O'Reilly Media, 2004).
6) See NIELSEN, J., 1995. Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and
Beyond. AP Professional.
7) "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
Quoted in Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz,
EISENSTEIN, E., 1982. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
GILLMOR, D., 2004. We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People,
for the People. O'Reilly Media.
INNIS, H., 1972. Empire and Communication Toronto: University of
INNIS, H., 1964. The Bias of Communication Toronto: University
of Toronto Press.
JAMES, C.L.R. 1956. Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient
Greece. Correspondence, 2 (12) June. Available from: http://marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm
NIELSEN, J., 1995. Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond.
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