Expanding the concept of literacy

Why do we place so much value on reading, writing and arithmetic?

We have created a cultural imperialism through our schooling systems that applies focusses our skills and abilities on 2 forms of communication – that which is described in words, and that which is described in numbers.

This limits our expressive capabilities, our receptive capacity and our ability to interpret and interact with the world around us. We have focussed society on letters and numbers, and pushed every other form of literacy to the margins.

I began thinking of this whilst reading Remix, and having a discussion with Chris Doering on Open Innovation.

It occured to me that we live in a world where everything is rewritable (some things more easily so than others) and in the future everything should be “Delivered in Beta”, in order to make this clear and reduce the barriers to development and modification. But to rewrite the physical world, we need to be Physically Literate – to be able to read in an object not just what is intended of it, but what it can also be used for (it’s subtext), just like a word can positioned in a different place to extend or alter it’s meaning, the same is possible for physical forms, objects and materials.

I then began to think to myself, if we are extending literacy there are numerous other forms of literacy that many of us are culturally lacking.

In the below context, i’m using the Unesco’s interpretation of literacy, but replacing printed and written materials with alternative mediums of communication – “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

Other examples of literacy: Musical literacy, Emotional Literacy, Visual Literacy, Verbal Literacy, Haptic Literacy, Self Literacy, Political Literacy, Contextual Literacy, Media Literacy

You may argue that these things are subjects that are covered later on in life. My argument here is that by placing importance of one type of literacy in the first place we limit our own cultural growth and development. Our shared literacy affects greatly our shared language and how we communicate, it influences the way we see the world as it influences the tools we use to communicate and what we communicate. It shapes our collective culture and perception.

It is time for us to extend our cultural foundations, and extend our manner of expression and communication. If we all have the ability to “read and write” the world around us, then the world will be our wiki and our collective will shall emerge as Utopia.

This prose, like everything else is unfinished. It will remain (like myself) a work in progress. Feel free to add, amend, and expand, but please link back to me so I can continue to be a part of the dialogue.

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About society2point0

Serial Entrepreneur and Dragons Den Survivor now concerning himself with using web and mobile technologies to empower society and encourage real world interactions.

8 comments

  1. would be cool if you could expand on certain types of literacy and examples of how they are underdeveloped (like what situations made you realize a lack in physical literacy).

    • society2point0

      Hey Anja

      Good question, and a challenging one at that. I’ve been unconsciously working on my physical literacy for sometime – coming from a design background, so what makes me aware of Physical Illiteracy is peoples responses to certain behaviours that I exhibit.

      For example:
      if I need something to drink from I will pick up a container/or jar if there is no glass available
      if I need a bowl for some chips and dips at a party so I can share food with others, I will make one out of a torn off sheet of magazine
      if a biro doesn’t work because it is too cold, I will heat the ink with a lighter to get it too work
      if I tear my trousers on a night out I will stick them back together with chewing gum

      The response to these behaviours is that there is something unusual about them.

      However I would regard even my own literacy as basic, learning such things comes from touching material, understanding it’s properties and how it responds and behaves. Just as you only know how to use a word when you have read it in context, one must read a material in the same way.

  2. Joep Kuijper

    Very important observation Jay.

    At the moment I am attending to the film academy. And in the first few weeks, this subject already came across a few times.

    The class is with a group of people from different backgrounds (artistic, digital media, film) and we are all studying the literacy of the moving image/sound in a way. But when we’re watching a film and have a reflection afterwards, the perspectives can be really, really different. It such a nice thing. People are observing and listening in very personal ways and there’s no one truth. Every interpretation is legitimate. It’s an very open language. Everyone can tap into it, but not a lot of people do. Maybe because we’re trained in Hollywood literacy: a clear distinction between good and bad, a clear ending, no loose ends. Our own way of perceiving things is not often spoken of. Because maybe, what we will say, is not ‘the right way’.

    That’s probably why most of the people ‘don’t get David Lynch’. His last movie, ‘inland empire’, he calls a work that you have to approach as a music piece. You don’t have ‘to get it’, you’ve to experience it.
    I found it very difficult. Maybe my DavidLynch-literacy is too basic, working on it :)

    We were also reading Aristotle’s poetics this week, the text is more than 2000 years old. The original, in old greek, was translated into english several times. Each of the translation is different and has more footnotes than original text. This is because it’s very difficult to translate it into our modern language, only 2 in 10 words has a similar meaning in greek as in english. Gives a nice idea restricted we’re in our writing literacy.
    And again, we interpreted it.

    Is there a common theme in my comment. I don’t know. I think it’s about personal literacy, your own voice (be it in spoken language, image, haptics etc). Give it some room, it’s our individual gift to the world.

  3. society2point0

    Hey Joep

    I think what your describing there to a degree is contextual literacy, in different guises, and how being to “read” and understand the context affects our understanding of any given piece of work be it a personal context (such as your personal literacy, or your understanding of David Lynch requiring the ability to read) or a historical context (even putting ancient greek language aside, are we even capable of reading the context of the culture in which Aristotle was writing).

    For clarity, I’m not suggesting that such things become homegenised (i don’t believe that is even the case with standard literacy, words in my mind only have the meanings we attach to them), but that they are recognised and encouraged, and that alternative forms of communication between ourselves and our world be explored.

    Everything speaks, but how many of us are able to listen to the stories constantly told?

  4. Good points about how the ability to abstract and make conceptual connections and communicate them. It’s such an interesting ability, that it should be taught with a specific focus. Right now it’s only considered to be artistic – when the same message is echoed in differing media and forms of communication that run parallel across different senses.

    Also would like to add on to the improvisational nature of “improvable truth” related to the ability to teach innovation – by mentioning some of the ideas of Edward de Bono. He’s invented an interesting “missing” word meant to relate to literacy, but applied to the ability to make things happen in practical applications. – Operacy. Thought it would be a useful new word to hand off to you…

    Also cannot help but giggle about a past time in the beginning of movie industry when the public not able to follow indications of what was happening in the story by seeing the images meant to show certain actions. This is a symbolic representation skill that the media has schooled watchers to interpret in the various historic stages of film making that’s fascinating to learn.

    • society2point0

      Thanks Franis, especially for the new term Operacy – an expanding vocabulary for such things can help identify further research in the field. I think this media schooling medium is also a very interesting area of exploration. I believe with respect to media literacy, but also our general literacy, we are becoming hyper-colloquial. Words, terms, images and memes commonly understood in certain scenes, don’t translate easily into parallel cultures.

      • Yes, as the language changes to accommodate new experiences and inventions, groups are becoming micro-cultures more often.
        People tend to (often unnecessarily) make up words. Sometimes the function is to offer belonging and exclusiveness rather than explain a really new relationship, event or thing. As a writer, this gratuitous “buzz word” urge makes me imagine people are merely inarticulate. But it has taken me over ten years to learn to be articulate in writing – and that’s time most people are not willing to spend.

      • Forgot to ask – what would be the factors that would indicate a need for making up a new word – in your opinion? I ask this because you so often describe assumptions and characteristics in your blog that others seem to have missed.
        ( Meaning, you should make up some words for what you’re explaining and start using them to see if they catch on.)

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