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.