Literacy, Technology, and Civic Engagement: A Retrospective

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Before the Winter semester of 2014, I was vaguely aware that the words “literacy,” “technology,” and “civic engagement” were interrelated. I figured the intersection of these words had something to do with understanding and using new emerging technologies to effect a successful political discourse. However, having been dulled for many years by apathy and indifference, my political awareness heading into this course was unsatisfying. For example, the first “assignment” for Literacy, Technology, and Civic Engagement was to find and share an image we thought represented the confluence of these terms. Now, I have always believed that citizens should have the freedom to live where and how they want; unimpeded by government or any authority of power. The image above was the one I shared, simply as an embodiment of this idea. However, despite the silhouette of Lady Liberty, my professor thought this black-robed woman alluded to the Arab Spring. Admittedly, all I knew about the Arab Spring was that it was a democratic victory aided by social media. From the beginning of this course, then, I was reminded that technology can be a positive force in society. It can motivate individuals to organize, perfect a discourse, and engage in critical issues. But, I was also concerned that my political apathy would hinder my enjoyment of this course. Fortunately, I soon discovered that civic or political engagement did not have to be daunting.

As a History major, I enjoyed the historical backdrop to this course. We looked at how the printing press revolutionized Europe and changed political, economic, and social realities. If the printing press had such a radical effect on Europe, is it not reasonable to suggest that digital literacy has transformed our society in similar ways? David Reinking claimed that it had, because electronic texts have nearly become the standard form of literate production. Almost twenty years ago, Reinking wrote, “the tangible means by which people read and write implies at least the potential for producing a cascade of sociocultural transformations” (Handbook to Literacy and Technology). I was not sure what this meant until later in the course, when I read W. Lance Bennett and Howard Rheingold. Their work, published more recently than Reinking’s, demonstrates that there is a generational gap in terms of social and political identity. Before the advent of participatory social media, individuals would become part of a physical social group, and that group’s values and political ideas would be inculcated into succeeding generations. However, our networked society has caused a consequential drop-out, so to speak, in group identity, where ideas spread from a community leader or an authority figure. This is generally not how things are anymore. As Bennett said, “individuals have become more responsible for the production and management of their own social and political identities” (Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age).

Ever since I became old enough to vote, I determined to become more politically informed and active. Despite trying, however, it seemed like I would never succeed at caring about politics. Popular politics just did not appeal to me, and there never appeared to be a candidate or an issue that I could really sympathize with. After taking Literacy, Technology, and Civic Engagement, however, I realized that this is a common perception among many younger citizens, despite media representations of youth flocking in droves around the Obama campaign. Indeed, most young people are poorly educated in civics, and they willfully ignore politics, turning instead to forms of self-expression and social networking. Others are on the margins of political discourse, aware of a larger political reality, but they are still disaffected by the inauthentic posturing and partisanship of the national stage. These individuals also drop out of the public sphere, and they too become mere media engagées.

Most of all, I think, this course helped me to understand that social media can be used for constructive and empowering purposes. I am now more dedicated to reading social, economic, and political news, forming an opinion, and joining in online discussions with opinion makers. I also have developed a keener sense of what constitutes civic engagement. As I noted, it does not have to be daunting. Individuals can just as easily take something they are interested in or passionate about and apply that to a larger civic issue. For example, as a mountain biker and avid defender of the environment, I can join a mountain biking association that, in tandem with organizations like the local Watershed Council, can fight to preserve trails and keep developers off public land. That is just one example of where a personal interest can become a civic one. Before any of this can happen, of course, individuals have to organize and engage in civic discourse. This has become way more apparent to me after taking this course.


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