What is Transliteracy? Yes, I’m asking again!

The detailed “Working Definition” that I see to the right of
the latest post every time I visit Transliteracy.com only goes some way towards
answering this question for me, but raises many more questions along that way.
Of course, I’m not the first to ask these and some transliterate
gurus have provided some pretty good answers to some of them… but the
discussion isn’t over yet, so raising them again may elicit some useful

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact
across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through
handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

 The context of and need for this emerging definition are
documented by seven highly qualified writers in the article Transliteracy:
Crossing divides
suggested as Background Reading for this blog. I’ve read it, a few times. So
why my need to grapple? With all the work that’s already gone into it and
especially if, as the article states, transliteracy is not a new behaviour, why
is it still a “working” definition?

Perhaps it’s because this comprehensive statement uses so
many words that signify more than one thing; suggesting so many required skills
that I wonder if anyone can ever be truly transliterate. It seems to start off

Read? Yes. Write? Yes. Interact? Yes. Across a range of
platforms? Er… ye-es…. Wait,… how many platforms? All of them? All the time?
Some of them? Some of the time? Which ones? Simultaneously? Consecutively?
Transformatively? All of the above? And what exactly are these platforms, tools and media?
Signing? As in hieroglyphics, or signing for the deaf, or iconography, or traffic
signs…? Come to think of it… Read? Write? Technically? With or without
spellchecker? With what levels of comprehension and intent?

Full of these thoughts, I tweeted on Mon 26 Oct 2009 … “Is
multiliteracy different from transliteracy?” Toby Moores aka sleepydog replied that
“transliteracy is transient – it helps to be multiliterate to see transliterate
opportunities which then become new literacies”.

Is transliteracy partly an attitude then, rather than an
accumulation of a minimum number of skills? Is it the willingness and desire to
transition between media, learning what one needs to know as one goes, to
create or interpret content that is as close as possible in form to the
original content in the original medium, while accepting that it must
inevitably be different and differently apprehended in its new form?

I say “form” deliberately. The article notes that “the word
‘transliteracy’ is derived from the verb ‘to transliterate’, meaning to write
or print a letter or word using the closest corresponding letters of a
different alphabet or language.” This does not mean to “translate”. For
example, one might transliterate the Hebrew word “רוח” as “ruwach”. This would enable those who use Latin rather than
Hebrew script to say the word, but not to understand it.

Is understanding a different thing entirely? As the article
points out, we are all multiliterate to some extent. But are any basic skills which
enable comprehension common to all the literacies? Do they precede the
technical skills required by each literacy? How about focus, concentration,
patience, memory, logic, analysis, synthesis, expressiveness, empathy… or just
the ability to hold a conversation? If people have these in a few media, why is
it so hard to port them to other media? Is confidence the missing ingredient? In
particular, why is it difficult for many to transition from Old Media to New
Media and vice versa?

In this discussion, the “vice versa” should not be
overlooked. Many who currently study transliteracy can remember, some only
dimly, the slower pace of life before the mobile phone and fax machine, the
pleasures of losing ourselves in a good book and not looking up until we’d
finished it, the safe intimacy of singing and storytelling at home or around a
campfire, of amateur dramatics, musical evenings or games of charades intended
only for a home or very local audience, and the satisfactions of eye contact
and body language, of knowing how to greet, introduce and engage strangers of
different ages and backgrounds at different physical events such as seminars, cocktail
parties, live debates or job interviews. These experiences continue to inform
the way we relate online, the way we imagine those with whom we relate.

We may therefore assume that those “born digital” can also
read and write offline and initiate and hold meaningful face-to-face
conversations. In fact, they may struggle with listening well, with following a
verbal or written train of thought for an extended period of time, with
becoming deeply and exclusively focused on a single task when necessary, or
with the basic courtesies that lubricate offline social interaction. Why is
this, despite the aforementioned article’s assertion that “transliteracy deliberately refuses to
presuppose any kind of offline/online divide”?

For instance, I found Frances Gibb’s article in The Times
on the Lord Judge’s views re a modern jury’s limited capacity for
concentration somewhat alarming: New jury system for multimedia age. I can see lots of advantages to screen and internet access for a jury, but
shouldn’t true transliteracy include
the ability to listen to speeches and interpret orality? Can the global community afford to lose those communication
skills that are not mediated through fragile, resource-hungry,
energy-dependent, non-ubiquitous bits and bytes?

Transliteracy: Crossing Divides bravely envisions a world
where everyone communicates via the medium/media most appropriate for their
particular content and context, happily switching modes when necessary, and delights
in the new types of art, interaction and thought that arise “in the places
where different things meet, mix, and rub together”.

At present, though, we glimpse it imperfectly, in
the same way that we hear imperfectly the tantalisingly recognisable but not yet truly
interpretable message of Peter Ablinger’s Talking Piano:

Talking Piano Is Awesome And Weird – Watch more Funny Videos


One thought on “What is Transliteracy? Yes, I’m asking again!

  1. An article in The Independent today “What the web is teaching our brains” http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/what-the-web-is-teaching-our-brains-1826419.html is quite interesting in relation to transliteracy. Based on an interview with neurologist Prof. Gary Small re his book iBrain – Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, it describes the skills that may be gained and those that may be lost through computer and Internet use, if practitioners are not careful to balance their activities.

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