the horizon of “digital literacy”

As happens around the time of year, EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium have published their annual Horizon Report. By now, you are likely familiar with its methodology of identify six technologies "on the horizon" of adoption in higher education across three time periods: one year or less; two-three years; four-five years. This year's winners are the following:

  • Mobile computing (1 or less)
  • Open content (1 or less)
  • Electronic books (2-3)
  • Simple augmented reality (2-3)
  • Gesture based computing (4-5)
  • Visual data analysis (4-5)

I'm particularly interested here in the first three. Not only because they are more imminent, but also because they have more obvious connections to writing instruction. The report also identifies larger trends and challenges. While each has an impact on rhet/comp and English Studies in general, one in particular points toward us:

Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance
as a key skill in every discipline and
profession. The challenge is due to the fact
that despite the widespread agreement on its
importance, training in digital literacy skills and
techniques is rare in any discipline, and especially
rare in teacher education programs. As
faculty and instructors begin to realize that they
are limiting their students by not helping them
to develop and use digital media literacy skills
across the curriculum, the lack of formal training
is being offset through professional development
or informal learning, but we are far from
seeing digital media literacy as a norm. This
reality is exacerbated by the fact that as technology
continues to evolve, digital literacy must
necessarily be less about tools and more about
ways of thinking and seeing, and of crafting narrative.
That is why skills and standards based
on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat
ephemeral and difficult to sustain.

If you are tied to this business at all, then you recognize this as familiar rhetoric. Though I'm going to poke some holes in this in a minute, that should not undermine the fundamental situation at stake here. It is increasingly difficult to imagine arguing that college students will not be using digital media as students, professionals, and citizens for many purposes that will partly supplant as well as extend the way prior generations used books, paper, pens, typewriters, libraries, televisions, newspapers, lecture halls, and even higher education itself. As an industry, as institutions, and as faculty we remain ill-prepared to meet these changing conditions.

That is fundamentally what is at stake in that passage.

However. I am concerned about the concepts that we are deploying to address these changing conditions. I was zipping around a lot on the web yesterday, so I apologize for not attributing this, but I was reminded of Deleuze's perspective that concepts are developed in order to address problems/questions. Either way, here's a quote from Negotiations via Wikipedia

"Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don't tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. […] The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn't say but is nonetheless present in what he did say."

In this frame, I would suggest that "literacy" is a concept that responds to the problems print technologies pose as mechanisms of communication. Here we remediate, I suppose, the concept of literacy as "digital media literacy" in response to the problem of understanding how assemblages of/including digital technologies mediate communication. Oh, I recognize the rhetorical nature of this choice. "Literacy" is a charged term in education. Few would doubt the importance of teaching "literacy," so to tie digital media to literacy is a way of brining a particular kind of legitimacy and attention to the task. The word "literate" enters English along with the printing press in the 15th century, where it refers to a general understanding of language and a liberal education. Literacy, tellingly, only appears in the late 19th century as a discernable quality or skill and as a quality of a social group. So one might contend that "literacy" only appears as a concept as a way of socializing and institutionalizing a particular perceived problem in the habits of a population who were being newly introduced to a system of public education.

I will take this one step further and suggest that literacy suffers from conceptual problems that are similar to those Latour identifies in the use of the term social by "sociologists of the social" (as he calls them). Namely, that we imagine that literacy is a particular kind of substance, much as we might typically imagine the "social" to describe a particular substance. That is, that "literacy" is a thing (or a category of things if we want to accede that there are different literacies) that one may or may not "have." Much like the problems Latour sees with social explanations, questions of literacy tend to either focus on local settings (i.e. Johnny (not) reading his book) or leap to general social explanations of (il)literacy.  This shouldn't be surprising since we think of literacy as a social phenomenon and problem. If we think of literacy practices as a subset of social practices, then it becomes maybe a little more clear where ANT comes into this conversation. We can recuperate literacy just as Latour does for the social, but it is likely a long process. Maybe this is why some folks (e.g. Ulmer) prefer to invent new terms. 

So let's take the example of mobile computing. As faculty, we cannot rush in with preformed definitions of mobile literacy. Our students are extensive users of mobile computing. I use my iPhone all the time, but maybe not as much as they often use their mobile phones, and not for the same activities. We can think of "digital media literacy actions" (i.e. producing and consuming digital media) as the development or extension of a certain kind of social ties but also as the development/extension of cognitive/affective/subjective networks. As Latour argues, these bonds gain durability through objects. 100 daily text messages from your significant other points to this durability and the need to refresh it. Literacy is not natural (of course) nor does it just sit in the background, invisible, waiting to be called upon. It is continually in action through these networks. And nowhere is that more clear than in mobile computing.