Andrea Savieri, Research Director of the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, invited me to come and talk about transliteracy first to her colleagues over lunch and then to the IFTF FutureCommons group early evening, on Monday 12 Nov 2007. I was very excited to get the opportunity to visit this long-established thinktank, and I wasn't disappointed. I have to say that I also very much appreciated the physicality of the space, with many different kinds of settings from seminar rooms plastered with post-it notes from ceiling to floor; open lounge areas; formal presentation areas, and breakout tables complete with fresh flowers and scented candles – all designed to support reflective and creative thinking however it may occur.
At both sessions everyone deeply engaged with the concept and gave me some extremely useful feedback and insights into the idea of transliteracy and how it might be understood. I learned that in China writing has been so deeply embedded in the culture for such a very long period of time that it would be very difficult to imagine the society without it. I was recommended (twice – once at each session, in fact – to read Fred Turner on boundary objects. Alex Pang expressed his discomfort about the notion of 'literacy' in any form, since it is automatically exclusive of a whole range of other experiences and ideas, and I tend to agree with him, although none of us in the room could think up a better word/concept. But, we all seemed to like the 'trans' part so maybe we're looking for a word like like 'trans~~~~' ??
Here’s a snippet of Alex’s thoughts – read the whole post here.
Where things go off the rails is using the term “literacy” to talk about things as different as game-playing, geo-blogging, writing, and picture-taking. I think there are two possibly insurmountable problems with it.
First, among academics, the term “literacy” may be irretrievably bound up in assumptions of literacy as fluency with texts. The danger with applying the term to other kinds of creative and communicative activity is that it ends up reviving the post-structuralist imperialist project– the intellectual enterprise that saw everything from nuclear war to dressing to Photoshopping as engagement with one or another “text.”
Second, among just about everyone else, “literacy” isn’t a description of a particular kind of skill, but instead is a claim about the importance of a skill. Skills that have economic value or give power to their users– or more specifically, are believed to be skills that are valuable now but will become more valuable in the future– are defined as types of “literacy:” we talk about computer literacy, visual literacy, economic literacy, information literacy, and other forms of 21st-century “digital literacy.” On the other hand, we don’t talk about “bicycle literacy,” “walking literacy,” or “sexual literacy” (except perhaps in certain chat rooms)– these are either universal and hence trivial, or not economically significant. The word “literacy” signifies importance. It’s an argument masquerading as a definition.
Finally, and separately, I wonder about how long the particular condition that the PART Group is interested in– the need to have different forms of literacy that allow for fluent use of different kinds of media– is going to last. Today we talk about visual literacy, television literacy, and computer literacy as different things because they’ve been separate media; but in the YouTubed, mashed-up, RSSed future of media, will we need different kinds of skills to deal with each? Is transliteracy an artifact of today’s fractured media situation?
Again, this is not to say that the underlying issues don’t deserve to be studied; they most certainly do. I just wonder how long it will be before the concept of “literacy” will be more trouble than it’s worth.
After the lunchtime talk Alex took me down the street to the Cafe del Doge where I had an exotic transliterate coffee which was both liquid and solid at the same time – a kind of interstitial mocha drink in a cocktail glass. Very sophis! Alex took some pictures.
At 4.30 I went back to IFTF for the Futurecommons event. I was very pleased by the turn out, especially since it was Veteran’s Day so many people were taking a public holiday. The next day Xing yu Lu, who was visiting from Beijing, kindly sent me some photos including the one shown here. Here I was recommended to read The Alphabet and the Goddess by Leonard Shlain and there was some discussion of the role of transliteracy in products like Baby Einstein. I was interested to talk with Sky Schuyler, a Futurecommons regular, about his international work with the Dalai Lama Foundation, and with Dr Jan English-Lueck of the Silicon Valley Cultures Project, whose work is closely related to my nature in cyberspace research.
In addition to the Futurecommons members there was also a group of students from Cal State East Bay, who had come to find out what IFTF is all about. Here’s a report of their visit including yet more great pictures!
The day was rounded off with dinner with Research Director Andrea Savieri, and lots of good talk about where to go to from here. There’s definitely a collaboration in the making…
Footnote: I gave two different versions of the same presentation, which will be posted here soon once I’ve sorted out some odd hyperlink glitches.