A New Conversation About Literacy

This article first appeared on Gals Guide to the Galaxy (GalsGuide.org)

In the days and weeks following the presidential election of 2016, a new term was on the lips of many. Fake news had necessitated that we talk about it, and people generally got the idea: Media Literacy is about detecting fake news. Of course like many things, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. And media literacy should never be made into a political or partisan issue, just like traditional literacy isn’t. Not anymore, anyway. At least in the U.S.

UNESCO defines literacy as a “fundamental human right” and “the foundation for lifelong learning.” Their page on literacy goes on to say that literacy, “is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.” (my emphasis)

While literacy has long been understood as essential to improving quality of life, the term has not kept pace with society, which has introduced new forms of encoding information while the world was trying to teach everyone how to read and write. And this new form of communication doesn’t rely for its effectiveness on people’s ability to read and write or even critically understand its content. Indeed, it works better for its broadcasters if people don’t think too hard about the information they’re consuming. On the surface, the new medium appears not to require any decoding skills at all, but that’s where things start to get tricky.

Visual communication is a new linguistic form with its own iconic symbols, denotational and connotational meanings, established conventions, and societal referents. While the written word has been around for millennia, for most of that time visual communication was only undertaken by artists who were trained to understand the symbols they were using.

I’m speaking, of course, about the many modes of visual communication. The tools and techniques used at first by painters and then by photographers were refined and expanded upon in the era of early motion pictures and “talkies.” That language was extended yet again by television and sophisticated ads marketing all kinds of products day and night, and then all of that existing syntax was rolled into the production of online videos and animations we see today.

So why is this important?

Visual communication is a new linguistic form with its own iconic symbols, denotational and connotational meanings, established conventions, and societal referents. While the written word has been around for millennia, for most of that time visual communication was only undertaken by artists who were trained to understand the symbols they were using. Members of society, mostly the upper echelons, learned to understand and interpret those symbols and spent a lot of time decoding and discussing their meaning. They were privy to a language richly encoded with layers of meaning upon meaning, and unpacking all of that could be hugely rewarding, especially when the artist was a true master who could surprise even the most skilled and experienced of these decoding art aficionados.

I do take umbrage with the amount of attention being paid to decoding 16th century language versus the lack of attention being given, in this country at least, to the decoding of 21st century language.

Shakespeare changed all that. His works were meant to be accessible to the masses. But he didn’t rely on the decoding skills, which were in many ways the hallmark of the upper crust of society, being shared with the lowly tavern crowd. Instead, he found new ways of encoding meaning on multiple levels so as to entertain more than one group at a time. The strategy was, of course, brilliant in concept and exquisite in its implementation.

Fast forward a half a millennium or so, and we are still teaching school children how to decode Shakespeare’s plays. And while I take no issue with that, I do take umbrage with the amount of attention being paid to decoding 16th century language versus the lack of attention being given, in this country at least, to the decoding of 21st century language. One skill does not necessarily lead to the other, and that’s the misconception our educational institutions have been laboring under for quite some time.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that so many of our nation’s teachers aren’t media literate. If they were, they’d see the growing crisis.

They’d be shouting up the chain of command through their unions and professional groups, to their principals and school boards. The root problem we have right now is that people who don’t make media messages tend to devalue their potential impact – on themselves, their children, and others. Sure, we all would like to think that we are too sophisticated to be duped by a marketing campaign, but we buy the stuff they’re selling anyway without a hint of recognition that our purchasing decisions are informed by unconscious factors. The reality is that videos, movies, TV shows, and the like communicate with us on so many levels at once that we can’t be fully conscious of all the ways they’re impacting us and helping to form our impressions about the world. The only way we start to unpack the truth is through critical analysis of mediated messages. And that’s where we get to the new term of media literacy.

In my opinion, media literacy is the new literacy. Knowing how to read and write simply isn’t enough anymore. In fact, it isn’t required at all for communicating in this new way. Not that I’m advocating we abandon our efforts at teaching people to read and write written language, but we had better turn some of our attention to improving our overall media literacy levels if democracy is to survive.

When you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed, are you reading all the text?

Wikipedia says literacy is “traditionally understood as the ability to read, write, and use arithmetic.[1] The modern term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.[2] The concept of literacy is expanding in OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts.[2]” (my emphasis)

I guess the real question here is, what are the dominant symbol systems in our culture? To answer this question, I posit the following question: When you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed, are you reading all the text?

Yeah. So if you had something to say but all you could do was read and write, who would even hear you say it? The reality is that now, in 2017, if you have something to say and can’t turn it into a meme, a video, an animation or other compact visual form, people just aren’t going to pay much if any attention. Not unless you’re already famous, anyway.

 

 

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