"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can't read & write,
but those who can't learn, unlearn & relearn." - Alvin Toffler
So what is literacy?
The first time I listened to an audio book I thought I was cheating. As a child, reading for me seemed like a lot of work, and my teachers kept piling on more reading assignments, continually feeding into the notion that reading is hard work.
Later, I rationalized that the process of reading is the process of taking characters on a page and turning them into mental concepts and images. Listening to an audio book is a little different process where we convert sounds into mental concepts and images.
Today, when someone talks about literacy there is an instant assumption that they are talking about the ability to read and write – basic ink-on-paper communications 1.0. However, communications is evolving and our ability to craft words and preserve them on paper is being replaced with digital forms of communications, and the options people now have to communicate with each other have exploded into thousands and thousands of nuanced variations of what was formerly called language.
Tomorrow there will be even more.
Understanding Literacy through the Words We Consume
In 2008, Americans consumed 1.3 trillion hours worth of information. This information consumption translated into an average of 12 hours per person, 100,500 words, and 34 gigabytes each day.
If we base the notion of literacy on the number of words that flow into our mind on a daily basis, we suddenly realize that the incoming words are coming from a variety of different sources. Today the vast majority of our "word intake" comes from television and computers with only 9% coming from print media. In 1960, print media accounted for 26% of our word consumption but has shrunk to 9% today, with the prospects of getting even smaller in the future.
For many people working within the book-centric world of today, it's difficult for them to wrap their mind around the changing attitudes of today's information consumers. And even for those who can, it's not clear what the next steps should be, and how fast the changes should be made.
Programming as a Language
In 1972, I was a young engineering student at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD and for my first computer programming class I was trained to “speak” the language of Fortran. We were taught a basic form of machine communications to “talk” to the giant computer through punch cards that were fed in and out of the beast through a card reading input-output device.
In this class our training involved such sophisticated tasks as sorting numbers, basic addition, and putting lists in alphabetical order. The whole process was very time-consuming with very little to show for the effort.
At the end of the class, being the true visionary that I am, I concluded, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there would be no future for the profession of computer programming.
Computers spoke a different language. In many ways it was similar to the language differences of people in Europe or Asia. While learning French, German, Mandarin, or Japanese required learning foreign words, definitions, and vocal inflections, the mastery of a computer language required the writing and interpretation of computer code, Boolean algebra, and many long and frustrating hours of dealing with non-human, no personality machines.
Next Generation Literacy
So going back to my original question, what really is literacy?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) describes literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.
Going beyond the textbook definition, literacy is evolving, and deep inside this evolution we can begin to understand some of the underlying complexities associated with the options currently at our disposal.
- Reading and writing
- Computer literacy
- Web surfing literacy
- Cell phone & telephone literacy
- Smart phone literacy
- Body language literacy
- Financial literacy
- Online commerce literacy
- Online security literacy
- Graphical literacy
- Animation literacy
- Audio literacy
- Video literacy
- Social networking literacy
- Gaming literacy
- Virtual world literacy
- Cultural literacy
It is a common trap to associate our talent for communicating with our ability to read and write. However, texting is different than cartooning. Audio podcasts are different than video podcasts. Each new form of communications comes with its own unique style and attributes for conveying thoughts and ideas.
Literacy will continue to evolve along with every new system and each form of technology that gets created along the way.
Basic reading and writing forms of communications will no longer be sufficient for the workforce of the future. People will still need to read and write, but they will also need a whole lot more.