Today Sue Thomas gave a talk at the Institute on "transliteracy." I've communicated with Sue for the last couple years about the end of cyberspace– last year she published an article in Convergence titled "The End of Cyberspace and Other Surprises" that said nice things about my work– but this was the first time we'd met in person.

Transliteracy is "the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks." It's a concept that the De Montfort University PART (Production and Research in Transliteracy) Group, which Sue leads, is working on. I found the talk quite interesting, but it made me aware of something I hadn't realized:

I hate the term "literacy."

Obviously this needs some explaining.

I certainly agree with the basic the idea that the repertoire of skills that we need to express ideas is multiplying, as the variety of media in which we work grows; that the cultivation and exercise of those skills probably affect not just how we can communicate, but how we think; and that all this deserves lots of attention.

Where things go off the rails is using the term "literacy" to talk about things as different as game-playing, geo-blogging, writing, and picture-taking. I think there are two possibly insurmountable problems with it.

First, among academics, the term "literacy" may be irretrievably bound up in assumptions of literacy as fluency with texts. The danger with applying the term to other kinds of creative and communicative activity is that it ends up reviving the post-structuralist imperialist project– the intellectual enterprise that saw everything from nuclear war to dressing to Photoshopping as engagement with one or another "text."

Second, among just about everyone else, "literacy" isn't a description of a particular kind of skill, but instead is a claim about the importance of a skill. Skills that have economic value or give power to their users– or more specifically, are believed to be skills that are valuable now but will become more valuable in the future– are defined as types of "literacy:" we talk about computer literacy, visual literacy, economic literacy, information literacy, and other forms of 21st-century "digital literacy." On the other hand, we don't talk about "bicycle literacy," "walking literacy," or "sexual literacy" (except perhaps in certain chat rooms)– these are either universal and hence trivial, or not economically significant. The word "literacy" signifies importance. It's an argument masquerading as a definition.

Finally, and separately, I wonder about how long the particular condition that the PART Group is interested in– the need to have different forms of literacy that allow for fluent use of different kinds of media– is going to last. Today we talk about visual literacy, television literacy, and computer literacy as different things because they've been separate media; but in the YouTubed, mashed-up, RSSed future of media, will we need different kinds of skills to deal with each? Is transliteracy an artifact of today's fractured media situation?

Again, this is not to say that the underlying issues don't deserve to be studied; they most certainly do. I just wonder how long it will be before the concept of "literacy" will be more trouble than it's worth.

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