The Modern Perception of Literacy and Its Digitalization

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How do we, especially in the wake of modern technology–like the internet–distinguish what it means to be, according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 2013) a “active, successful participant” in the 21st century? In order to actively partake in being a successful, literate person, the NCTE calls for the ability to be a literate person in many literacies. So, what is literacy? For one, literacy could be one’s ability to read and write, and whether or not we have the ability to use them appropriately. But most times, we’re probably thinking of the antonym – what does it mean to be illiterate? Where the definition ranges from one’s inability to read and write to a showcase of a lack of culture. The thing about literacy, however, is that it is not all black and white. And when we incorporate the fact that literacy will continue to evolve alongside with the social world, we are stuck trying to grasp the range of literacies that define the 21st century while simultaneously acknowledging the responsibility of power. So, let us propose that literacy is a direct correlation to digital media. As the Digital Age progresses, so does the need to access information, making the internet essential in everyday human life. However, not everyone has the means to access digital media, thus it is pertinent that we acknowledge the privilege that comes with it, and understand why it means to have it. And by privilege, I mean that, because we live in a developed, industrialized country, and as a younger generation, whose adeptness to this ever-changing culture is phenomenal to observe, fluency in these many literacies comes quick and readily.

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The concept of ‘many’ literacies, however, isn’t really anything new nor are groundbreaking discoveries. From written text to speech, we’ve been doing it for centuries now. What is different, is that now, we’ve shaped these literacies into new forms that are codependent on each other in such a way that the act of processing and sharing information does not just enhance the meaning behind the material presented, but becomes stimulating to a wide range of audience. Even gestures we make when we recall stories in the form of spoken word come together to create what the NCTE refers to as multimodal literacies, an interplay of language and visual (and others) fulfilling the purpose of message and communication. Our interactions with these so-called tools of technology, as the NCTE states, label us as proficient in the world of literacy, and our ability to critically think about these tools deepen these skills. In fact, I think we have become highly competent and successful participants in the 21st century when it comes to executing this concept of literacy. Whether it be our ability to manipulate multimedia texts or as emphasized throughout NCTE’s position statement, to be able to use these tools, our comprehension of “reading and writing” no longer just pertains to text on a tangible piece of paper. We now have evolved into the fusion of multiple modes – “a ‘channel’ of representation or communication” (MODE, 2012) that now include moving pictures and even interpreting dancing. And with this joining of multiple modes, we have created a sense of coherence that transforms these texts and modes into puzzle pieces that flawlessly fit together, enhancing the way we consume information.

With that, it is extremely important to understand that the emergence of virtually numerous of different literacies are due to the advancement of technology, drastically shaping the way information is communicated through. On one hand, the NCTE emphasizes the sharing of information globally and our ability to use multimedia text in correlation with how they coexist alongside modern technology. So why is it so important that we be capable of using technology? One reason, as Garreth Wigg mentions when highlighting the positives of the technology, in which he refers to the model as social media, is that “students today have more of a reason to write than ever before. Instantly publishing your work online, where literally anyone can read it, is quite an awesome result of social media.” (Wigg, 2013, p.34) In fact, especially in the dawn of the digital age, being able to share your work, your interests and hobbies, and even your opinions, are at the touch of your fingertips. We are able to see places like Twitter and Facebook–with 58% of American internet users having Facebook (Weise, 2015)–both who have become a medium for the creation of so many aspects of pop culture within the 21st century, allow us to communicate in ways that we have never done before while accommodating various types of users. We also see the emergence of things like, for example, memes through these platforms. While they can be vastly different in different cultures, the basic understanding of these pictures transcends language. The fact that the internet has defined memes as a way of cultural information being shared is fascinating, and says a lot of how multiple literacies are able to come together to convey something. The fact that, if I could, insert a screen caption of Michael Scott from the office yelling, “No God, Please No!” without any context, the majority of the people who will see the picture, if haven been immersed in what essentially is the English language internet culture, would understand and relate immensely to it. The emergence of different grammatical rules and syntax due to the headway of the internet and social media is also important to take notice of too; slang or what is more commonly known as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), has become ingrained in our everyday speech that in 2015, over a thousand slang words were added onto the Oxford dictionary, including the word twerk (Citation). The digital world hasn’t created multimodal literacies, but has become a way for them to flourish dramatically.

On the other hand, what the NCTE fails to take into consideration is the power and privilege that comes into play when discussing the various types of (multimodal) literacies and how our success to share information is influenced by our ability to interact with them. Their assumption that everyone has this privilege is harmful, and leaves behind a lot of the rest of the world that aren’t western centric nor revolving around the English language. Access to what we loosely define as literacy via technology is circumstantial, and it is important to be aware of this. For those who are privileged enough to have access, we have anything from books, magazines, articles, movies, etc., whenever we want, wherever we want. For those who don’t have access, the means of communication and obtainment of information can be discouraging, if not a major setback. Devices like the internet is a powerful thing that has equipped us with the means to obtain uncensored information and to communicate, where would we be without it? But it isn’t just internet access that carries the weight of privilege. The United Nations has sparked tremendous debate as to whether, in the simplest terms of literacy (reading and writing) should be seen a human right or privilege. Meanwhile countries like South Sudan and Afghanistan, have literacy rates of only 27 to 28%, making them the top 2 most illiterate countries in the world, with the primary cause being poverty (Citation).

It is this very concept that the NCTE stresses–this need for proficiency in literacy through tools of technology that everyone is assumed to have entry too–is very exclusive. Shipka expresses worry for this, stating “that emphasis placed on “new” (meaning digital) technologies has led to a tendency to equate terms like multimodal, intertextual, multimedia … with the production and consumption of computer-based, digitized, screen-mediated texts.” And this very fact, has drastically limit the different mediums we can utilize. The social world is changing, and along with it, comes the popularity of the digital world. But the NCTE’s willingness to state that this makes us literate not only leaves the millions of people around the world who don’t have these accesses behind, especially in non-Western countries where literacy rates barely graze 50%, but places cultural and language restrictions on non-English speakers.

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