There is something especially appropriate about writing a post about “New Literacies” on a collaborative blog, especially a blog that I don’t “own” or control. I’m participating in an interactive space where I can not only link to relevant things, but other people can link back to me, or reply to me, or any number of other instant social things. The “owner” of the blog can also potentially come in and edit my words, or migrate this post and all others in the blog into another format.
But, wait, there’s more! WordPress notifies me “Draft saved at 1:46:51 pm”, which also lets me know that the text itself is also being broken up into packets, copied, transported, transmitted, stored, erased, and re-distributed all over the world even now, as I type in these words! After I click the “publish” button, this text will get pushed and pulled through data centers and and finally onto the machines of anyone who reads this post. It’s a bit mind-boggling when you think of how different the “mechanics” involved in producing and consuming text are compared to what it is with so-called “dead tree” books.
But all of that is really just an interesting aside, right? I guess you should probably ignore my giggle fits over how freaking cool this is.
Or should you? (Cue ominous suspenseful music.)
In the first chapter of “New Literacy Sampler”, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel discuss how literacies can be thought of as a person’s ability to engage in a specific discourse, and how the advent of social online technologies results in a kind of explosion of various literacies, discourses, and identities for people to occupy. For them, literacy means more than a person’s ability to read and write–it refers to a person’s fluency and comfort participating in a given discourse. It’s a set of skills appropriate for a given community, and having or not having those skills signal whether someone is part of an “in-group” or not. There is much much more to their discussion about how to draw a line between old and “new” literacies, as well as how “new” literacies represent and require changes in how we think about everything from authorship, ownership, identity, business, and text. However, the way they implicitly define literacy is what I want to highlight here.
So what does it mean when we apply the metaphor of “literacy” to such a wide variety of practices? In “Blinded by the Letter – Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”, Wysocki and Johndan say that “too much is hidden by [the word] ‘literacy’… too much that we are wrong to bring with us”. They discuss how “literacy” is problematic not simply because it’s hard to define. They remind us of the social implications and baggage that historically and currently are still tied to the word “literacy”. They remind us that the “myth of literacy”–that gaining “literacy” will somehow empower and lift people up to the same level–is in fact a myth. While gaining literacy (no matter how you are defining it) is a useful tool to help one participate in a given discourse, it is not value-neutral, and it does nothing to solve the underlying causes of inequality, socio-economic problems, racism, or other problems. They remind us that teaching kids in a poor neighborhood to love reading, writing, or Facebook, will not inevitably make them feel like they can participate in the dominant public discourse when they grow up. Wysocki and Johndan remind us essentially that literacy is not a magic bullet solution to social problems, and caution us not to think of these skills which we keep calling “literacies” in this way.
I think this reminder is especially relevant with regards to discussions about the internet, and especially “Web 2.0”, which is all about participatory webservices, a blurring of the lines between creator and consumer of content, and the dissolution of “authority”. Many people see the internet as a place where “anyone can have a voice”, and they think of it as a kind of “great democratizer”. Making sure young people have basic computer skills in addition to reading and writing skills has become a topic of educational policy and practice exactly for this reason. Companies and industries thrive in their efforts to create newer, more connective, and more feature-ful services and technologies because of how important these “new literacies” have become to us and perhaps because they share the dream of giving everyone a voice online.
I think if you asked Wysocki and Johndan, they’d remind us that there is a danger in unbridled enthusiasm for the technologies driving these “New Literacies”, especially if they are adopted without being conscious of how existing social problems and power structures may be reinforced or further perpetrated within them.
I’ll use an example of a certain social website, reddit.com. reddit (which is always written in lower-case) is a social news site and web community where members post content, and other members vote either up or down to indicate how they felt about a given article, story, or comment. The idea is that “good” content, comments, and discussion will bubble up to the most prominent areas of the site, and “bad” content will be buried and eventually drop out entirely. It’s a typical example of a web service that tries to “democratize” the web. Only, there are problems.
Once you begin to engage in discussions on reddit, it becomes pretty clear that there is a set of values, ideologies, and voices that as a whole the community values and seems to give voice to through their votes. Unpopular values and viewpoints are regularly “downvoted to oblivion”. Reddit itself is also conscious of this trend, describing this practice as someone being a “victim of the reddit hivemind”. In response to this culture, minority groups, voices, and people with “unpopular” views carve out their own communities in sub-sections of reddit where, while their ideas and discussions may be more appreciated, they are no longer participating in the “mainstream” portion of reddit as a whole.
reddit is just one example of a place where the dream of technology and literacy empowering and enabling everyone falls short of its goal. Instead, we find that in our enthusiasm, we may have simply created a cyberspace version of existing social problems that literacy (both old and “new”) have only limited power to truly solve. Offline, there are countless examples where minority groups who have literacy skills may still not be able to participate in mainstream culture, because mainstream culture doesn’t represent or reflect them.
So what does all of this have to do with the way I started this blog entry? My enthusiasm for how all this technical stuff works wasn’t just me geeking out for its own sake (okay, maybe it started out that way). Really, I wanted to demonstrate one way that it is possible to become totally unaware of, or even ignore, the social context in which these technologies sit. It’s easy to take these New Literacies for granted, and allow ourselves to forget that technology and New Literacies are not value-neutral, and they carry with them all the things (good and bad) of the society that created them.