Digital Literacy. Some would say that there is a new set of skills that humans are going to need to learn in order to live a sustainable life in a world that is hurtling toward constant connectivity to vast amounts of information. I would argue that humans already have the tools to cope with life in the digital age. It could be said that the movement to a more technologically advanced, web connected world is requiring humans to dig deep into our collective consciousness and return to skills that were lost to an era of alphabets, printing presses, and two-dimensional media.
In his paper on digital literacy, Yoram Eshet-Alkalai suggests that there is a pentarchy of skills that will be required of digital citizens. The five areas Eshet-Alkalai groups digital literacy skills into are: Photo-Visual, Reproduction, Branching, Informational, and Socio-Emotional. While the classifications are new, the underlying skills are not.
Photo-Visual literacy is the idea that instead of using a complex, alphabet based form of communication, the internet and digital life is pushing humans to communicate using visual queues along with text. The claim is that this is facilitates communication beyond language and expedites the process of learning. This is a skill that was lost for generations. Granted our ancestors couldn’t transmit their cave wall or pyramid to other locations, but photo-visual literacy is still within us. We are just remembering its importance now because of technological change.
Reproduction literacy is based on the human urge to reproduce. The claim is that it is more important now, more than ever, for humans to know how to utilize past creations to propel culture forward. Clearly this is no more important now than it has ever been. What I believe is important in this area is WHAT parts of our past we choose to reproduce and HOW we choose to reproduce them. Just like the need to get reacquainted with out photo-visual past, we must also realize that one of our fundamental drives as humans is to re-envision our world. When the wheel was invented, it did not stop there, it eventually became a cart, an automobile, and an airplane.
Branching literacy is a bit more complex, but still something that humans have been doing for quite some time. Hyperlinking of information on the web is digital dog-earring. Before we could make a computer remember for us, we had physically interactive means for noting the information that we needed to keep readily available. Again, the issue is one of memory. We have forgotten the skill in the whirlwind of technological advancement and have allowed our abilities to be dulled. Non-linear learning should be easier in hypertext that physical text. After all, you no longer have to walk back to the shelf and get a new book to interconnect an idea from one source to an idea from another.
Information literacy is an easy concept and one that most people never really mastered, even in bygone eras. If all people through time had known how to filter out the bad information and get to only the useful and good information, we would not have the Christian church or two Bush’s among our list of Presidents. This is the scholarly equivalent of a bullshit detector and the truth is that most people have theirs turned off.
Finally, Eshet-Alkalai discusses the need for digital fear which he calls socio-emotional literacy. Just like locking your doors at night before going to bed, he believes that digital citizens will need a solid understanding of how to secure their digital presence. While this may be true in the same way that it is in the real world, it is also true that you don’t need to know exactly how your anti-virus software works, just like you don’t need to know how your telephone functions when you dial 911.
When push comes to shove, living a digital life and remaining literate digitally is going to require us to dig into our past and pull from our magic hat the memories of our forebears. We are not new to adaptation, nor are we novices. However, we are is in a place and time that seems new and exciting because of our shiny new gadgets and the speed at which we are forced to adapt to their effects in our lives, but the concepts we are adapting to are older than my grandma and she is farting dust.