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Literacy as defined by new media

Media literacy encompasses many aspects yet it is defined by two words that do not, at face value, quite do justice to its real meaning. The media has existed for quite some time and perhaps a description of the history of media might do justice to this blog post. I will however spare the reader the pain. Nevertheless, I will dwell quite a bit on the subject of literacy postulating that a better understanding of the word may give us certain glimpses into understanding the media and hopeful the term “media literacy.”

The definition of literacy resonated with me during Dr. Denis Hlynka’s seminar on media literacy. Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write or the ability to encode and decode. It is the latter for which I am most concerned. For the ability to read and write may not be sufficient enough to represent the word literacy. I may write with a great degree of ambiguity, lack of understanding, or scribbles which may make no sense but may be written in standard roman or latin text and arabic numerals. I have written, in ‘known’ characters, therefore I may be counted among the literates. I may be able to read what I write or even be able to translate it from one language to another but yet it may hold no meaning to me or bring any import to my state. Not that the words in themselves hold no meaning but I am unable to imbibe their meaning. I have written and read but the essence of those acts may be devoid of the action themselves – the essense of the reading itself. The world and its standard may consider me literate for my ability to read and write but not necessarily my ability to extract meaning from my writings or the ability to comprehend my readings.

Yet, global standards consider me literate. Because literacy, according to the world, is the ability to read and write.

This is a fundamental flaw of media literacy in the sense that the said word conveys totally different meanings to the listener from those originally intended by the author. Indeed, words, speeches and text may hold several composite factors, for instance, context, which brings the words alive and convey not just the meaning of the words but the original import, circumstance, and conditions surrounding the words which the author intentionally wove into the literal text. Such texts becomes alive and it is said to be living. They breath their very existence and are ageless. When a reader reads a text and strips it of these important elements, and yet they are considered literate but lose the exact essence of the text they have read then a flaw is propagated. And its a global one. One that wrongly defines literacy.

So I will strip a text of its context and talk about its context alone. For in my opinion, it is the understanding of the context of the text that brings the essence of the text to life. If you understand the essence of the text then you are literate.

I will describe the essence of a text as the original meaning intended by the author, the gut of the text – the inner most being of the text itself. The heart of the text or literally, the part that gives the text its breath of life. When a text is made alive, it elicits a certain response from the reader. A response for change, an action to move. The essence of a text could be likened to the charisma of the text or those of the author – as Heidegger would describe causa efficiens. The feeling we receive, to arise to action from an authoritative and eloquent speaker is the impartation of the essense of the text to, on and in us. It is different from the feeling of watching a news item, or reading the sports section of a newspaper with a triggerless outcome. A live text will constantly remain in our minds, will prick our conscience, and cause us to respond.

If the essence of a text can be conveyed without a literal representation, then a living text could be heard and not necessarily read. And thus literacy may not be tantamount to reading afterall but to a comprehension of the text through hearing. If we accept that meaning or essense could be imparted without reading (although reading is one and not the only way by which we can gain an understanding of a text) then literacy may and should not be defined in terms of reading alone. Thus it is the second definition of literacy that nearly appeals to me – the ability to encode and decode. For decoding refers to a process of understanding the hidden message within a medium. Media literacy is therefore a decoding of a text to the comprehension of the recipient of the same.

Encoding and decoding are words that can be used to replace the ability to speak and to understand a language other than yours, or to learn a new skill and apply it in a new way, or to learn music without a music degree. This new understanding sits well with traditional knowledge of medicine, or of wisdom, or of kinship handed down tacitly from generation to generation. This knowledge so passed down may not have been documented in literal terms but this fact does not make the custodian of these cultures, traditions and knowledge any less literate than one who may have read the literal text (if they were written down) and yet may not comprehend its essence. The learned fellow may not be any more literate than the custodian of this knowledge or culture.

Today, multimedia has began to define a new way of encoding and decoding knowledge. It does not anymore have to remain within the confines of written text and thus challenges the traditional mis-conception of knowledge or literacy as a thing within the domain of writers. If I can speak into a device, and that device can encode my knowledge into a form that can be searched, retrieved, or transcribed, all the actions that we can apply on traditional text and through which we have defined the standards of literacy above, then I am considered a knowledge creator and a literate person. Also, if I can photograph elements and through these process generate search-able knowledge then I am considered a literate person. In all of these, I many not have to have written a word of text and yet I am considered a literate person. Modern media thus questions the traditional definition of literary and in turn media literacy.


  1. Garry wrote:

    Lots to chew on here Ben. I have selected some of your text and will comment piece-by-piece.

    1. Regarding the fundamental flaw of the definition of literacy, you said "[a] word conveys totally different meanings to the listener from those originally intended by the author." I think that is potentially true. But, how can we know the intention of the author without the author to explain a text? Text may be left for us to deconstruct and then construct a meaning, and as such, it is possible that a message in the text may be heard by readers the way an author intended it to be heard. But, then again, it may not. I have heard Denis say before that once text is put onto paper (or wherever), its meaning is subjective, composed by the reader.

    2. “For in my opinion, it is the understanding of the context of the text that brings the essence of the text to life. If you understand the essence of the text then you are literate.” This makes very good sense. Understanding context makes one literate. Consider the bible or other historical texts. Knowing the way things were, living during those times, makes one literate; knowing the culture allows one to better perceive the essence. But is this to mean we can’t grasp the essence of text without personally knowing the context? I don’t think so. Here I am content with the definition of literacy to be the ability to recognize and process the input to our senses.

    3. “I will describe the essence of a text as the original meaning intended by the author, the gut of the text – the inner most being of the text itself.” I will suggest here that you are talking about the truth of the text, that lasting quality that transcends time. Have you read the paper by Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction? I think it applied to what you are saying here. Benjamin describes the aura (essence) that is part of an original work of art. Does a mechanical reproduction pass on the aura to the viewer? Similarly, is the innermost being of a text accessible to us outside of context? Why not?

    4. “A live text will constantly remain in our minds, will prick our conscience, and cause us to respond.” This is interesting, and I think it can be analyzed in at least two ways. First, the idea of a text living in our minds may have everything to do with where we are at in relation to the text (frame of reference); that is, how we are willing to hear it. You’ve heard the old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” yes? Someone other than me may not hear it the same way, so is the essence of the text only made manifest if it resonates with others as it did with me? Second, we must be willing to receive truth if it is to be made known to us (frame of reference again). This implies that the essence of a text is constant, not relative as suggested in my first point. Truth may be relative to an author – the intention – but until we orient ourselves in the direction of a truth, which suggests looking for it by thinking critically, then it will elude us.

    5. “And thus literacy may not be tantamount to reading after all but to a comprehension of the text through hearing.” Yes, and this goes to conversation, basic orality, which has existed, shall I say… forever?

    6. Your entire last paragraph to me suggests one thing, know-how. Literacy of any kind, as a tool, is know-how. I know how to read, write, speak, search, deconstruct, construct, debunk, validate. Literacy as a process is also know-how, but it is an evolving know-how that involves critical thinking skills and an attitude (stance, orientation to the world). One comes from the other; the tools evolve from the process. The converse though is also true.

    Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:57 | Permalink
  2. Mike wrote:

    Will I ever beat Gary to the comments?? LOL

    I concur with Gary, lots to consider here, Ben. Learning & literacy also has a cultural component, what makes someone 'literate' in one context may not apply to another. This prompts another question: is being literate the same as being 'educated'? I also like the encode & decode terminology. Most people think strictly reading & writing as literacy, but as you eloquently point out, it can be more, including aural and visual literacy. With new media we must include other ways of encoding & decoding.

    Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:20 | Permalink

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