Literacy, Technology, and Civic Engagement: A Retrospective

social media & human rights-resized-600.jpg

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.

James Burke – “A Matter of Fact”

Day-the-Universe-Changed-1Earlier this semester, I watched the above episode of The Day the Universe Changed, hosted by James Burke. I am not quite sure why my classmates characterized Burke as having a monotonous and boring style. I thought he was rather engaging, even if he is a stuffy British academe. In other words, he can be rather wry and condescending at times. But if you can get past that facet of his personality, the things he has to say in “A Matter of Fact” are rather erudite and profound, I think. Right away, the premise of “A Matter of Fact” caught my attention and resonated with me. Burke’s argument is threefold: (1) Technology has taken away our memory, (2) Technology has created an artificial way of living, and (3) Technology has cut us off from direct contact with the world. I happen to agree with these statements. I like the way Burke stated that “The natural world has been mechanized, processed, [and] packaged. . . Science and technology have taken away the real thing from everything we do, because five-hundred years ago, something happened that gave us today’s artificial way of living, took away our memories, and cut us off from direct contact with the world.” To a large extent, I agree with Burke’s premise. But I would not be so quick to place the blame in 1440 AD, with the invention of the printing press.

Before the advent of writing, the known world did, one could argue, operate in a much more romantic sense. Burke says that, “People were intimate with every sound and smell in nature.” Of course, life was a lot more uncomfortable then too with poor hygiene and diseases running amok. But the standards by which medieval persons went about their daily business were much different than our own standards today. For those individuals who could not read or write in Latin, nature was their constant interlocutor. The language of the day was circadian and interpersonal; not subject to the stultifying effects of abstraction and personal disconnection wrought by technology. The fact that news and information was shared through art and sound, and troubadours “could repeat a thousand words after hearing them once” is something that – if not slightly exaggerated – is a fantastic indication of what writing has done to dull the working memory. Do not get me wrong though. As a History major, I have studied a bit of medieval history, and the medieval period would have been a horrible time to live in. Not just because of the Black Death either. Sanitation was basically non-existent, and individuals slept with barn animals.

Burke treated the topic of the Black Death with apparent disregard for its victims. For Burke, the event was ultimately a footnote in the overarching theme of his presentation. It may seem irreverent treating the subject of the Black Death as a “passing phase,” when in fact it was the premier event of the Middle Ages; carrying 33% of Europe’s population away to the grave (just during the principal outbreak of the Black Death). But the “benefits” of the plague are usually spoken about in retrospect by economic and social historians. I tend to dislike this view, but it is a necessary evil in describing systems of change, and how institutions – economic, social, and political – were impacted by exogenous factors like weather, famine, disease, and war. Unfortunately, since the printing press came into existence after the Black Death, there are many source critical problems with medieval history. But Burke was focused on systems of change, which required him to deal with the dreary topic in broad, albeit slightly insensitive, strokes.


At any rate, as a History major, Burke’s historical lessons seemed accurate to me, at least in terms of what I have been taught. The printing press was first used for deceptive purposes. Leave it up to the Church to figure out some of the nastiest ways to use the printing press. Indeed, the indulgences were basically a payment that gave people the right to sin. But in principle, Luther’s theses were a sound condemnation of the Church that needed to be heard. However, when talking about the Protestant Reformation, I thought Burke contradicted himself. He said that “Luther gave people something they never had before: the chance to have their say, in safety, to a wide audience, on the printed page.” Clearly, Luther’s literate outpouring did not give people a chance to have an opinion in safety, because a form of State terrorism followed that saw many people burned for heresy. Anyways, after a sloppy period in history, intellectual ideals flourished and humankind became less taken in by superstition, and more interested in Science. But the sum total of all of this was the end of romanticism and the natural ebb and flow of life.

Nothing really disturbed me in this documentary. It was mostly historical lessons that were already buried somewhere in my subconscious mind. I think that Burke was perhaps a little too brazen in his assertion that all things could be traced back to the printing press, like Capitalism, state bureaucracies, technology, etc. These things, of course, required human agency, and the fact that one followed the other is not necessarily contingent on the technology itself. Indeed, these changes depended on human motivations and whims. But the way the documentary ended was perfect, I thought. The “real thing,” which Burke said had vanished at the sight of science and technology, has now become questionable five-hundred years later. We inhabit mostly a world of simulacra now; a world that is “fluid,” “transient,” and almost instantaneously “obsolete.” This is why there is a lot of sentiment in regards to the old world in some fringe movements, and is one of the central themes of postmodern and post-structural writers.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that, because of technology, we are worse off. The point of the documentary was to show that the invention of writing created a new, profoundly reflexive sense of self. Where once being literate meant committing news and information to working memory, writing made it possible to conveniently forget things, because it was written down to be referred to. One of my classmates brought up a great point, asking “How far will technology develop and how much, as a species, will we lose?” I am scared about the trajectory of our history as well, as technology continues to imprint itself on our minds, and across the environment. While I was watching the documentary, I was juxtaposing the monks transcribing the Bible with people spending most of their lives in cubicles and on computers. Is it really all that different? I mean, there is no sunshine in either place. Indeed, I do think that technology has cut us off from direct contact with the world. I try to be sensitive to the fact that we humans are not the only ones inhabiting this planet. In terms of total species count, we are by no means exclusive. For instance, what has technology done to the extinction of species, or to the degradation of the environment? I think you will find that technology has been incredibly destructive, and continues to be. After all, Capitalism is addicted to growth, and there is a finite amount of space on our globe to exploit resources. So I think the larger eco-social issues are more important than the temporary benefits we perceive from the use of technology.

Notes on a Post-Typographic World

51-NOcuUDuLIn 1998, David Reinking suggested that we were moving towards a “post-typographic” world. He predicted that written forms of communication would no longer be characterized by typesetting (the technology of molded metal forms and ink) and print (the end result of this mechanical technology). Instead, written forms of communication would eventually become completely electronic. This would seem like a fairly innocuous transition in the history of the written word, except Reinking warns that this phenomenon would carry along with it “broad-ranging consequences for a literate culture” (Reinking xx). There was some equivocation about the term typographic with the advent of laser printers and fax machines, but Reinking distinguishes between typographic text as being print on static, material surfaces, and post-typographic as being digitally-displayed text.

More and more things are becoming increasingly electronic. The introduction to the Handbook of Literacy and Technology mentioned a handful of services and commercial enterprises that had digitized their offerings. Of course, journal publishing in the academic sphere is largely becoming consolidated in favor of digital formats. Walk into just about any library, and what used to be magazines and periodicals are now workstations and Internet lounge areas. By and large, I do not think there has been a very big societal protest against the post-typographical. Other than librarians and people of a certain nostalgic persuasion, I perceive that the post-typographical has been a welcome addition among the masses. Although I am in the nostalgic camp, and agree with Reinking that “Books. . . are cultural icons that anchor the experience of being literate” (Reinking xxii).

Early on in the post-typographic section, Reinking cited a study where other authors have used the term post-typographic to “describe the influence of electronic media in operationalizing postmodern views of meaning or to suggest that writing in electronic media is more rhetorical compared to printed media, where writing is more philosophical” (Reinking xx). I think there is something important to this distinction, because electronic media has become such a global communication platform, which includes the beliefs and opinions of countless others. Print culture, on the other hand, will always be more philosophical, because the tangible book and the written word will always see its author or reader as an autonomous unit. This distinction, and the invariable disconnection of the reader of the printed word from the rhetorical sphere is not a bad thing. In fact, I find it desirable. The philosophical nature of the book is closer to our materiality and embedded nature within the environment. Call me a hippie if you must. But the typographical is much more than that even. A book is immediately divorced from the swaying opinions of others. I think this is a radical distinction and one that deserves more credit.

Even after reading the introduction to the Handbook of Literacy and Technology, I still think it is safe to define literacy very simply as the ability to read and write. This, of course, means that one who is literate is able to communicate with and understand a given language, whether that language is symbolic (the alphabet or a programming language) or pronounced (the ability to speak, prosody and enunciation, etc.). Whether you are reading a book or an Internet article, the activity you are engaging in is still literacy as just defined. True, technology has given us brand new languages and modes of communication to learn. But the concept of literacy is still the same, I think. I mean, what difference is there really (in terms of defining literacy), when reading the word “typographic,” as printed with ink on paper, and reading the word “typographic” as a digital text? It is still the same symbols, and the word looks the same, so the act of being literate of that particular word is the same as well. No doubt, there are multiple levels to literacy, and it might be helpful to think about it in terms of a spectrum. This is why we have different reading levels in school, and on the backs of books for children. So, I do not think the question is “What is literacy?” but, “At what age does one become literate?” This should be an easy question to answer for those in Early Childhood Education. But, like any skill, being literate is something that we can always strengthen through language acquisition and reading comprehension.

To me, it felt like Reinking was deliberately muddling the definition of literacy. Technology does not change the definition of literacy. Technology just changes the ways and means by which we are literate. Reading may be the same, but the use of a given technology changes the definition of literacy in terms of writing. For instance, typing is something most of us take for granted and can do very easily. But typing is fundamentally different from using a pencil and writing words on paper. With a computer, you have to know where the keys lie on the keyboard; and not just the letters, but the keys that help format a given page or multimedia presentation. I think this is what Reinking meant, summarizing Olson (1994), when he says, “resources of writing” are part of a “culturally defined set of tasks and procedures.” Indeed, the resources are no longer just ink or graphite. Still, the definition of literacy is not going to change conceptually, but conditionally. We will have to increasingly learn new modes of communication with emerging technologies, especially if they become standardized forms of communication in society. Personally, I am interested in the cognitive aspects to literacy, and if there are any significant differences in brain mapping between using digital technology versus traditional “technology.”