Next-Generation-Literacy-761“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.

  1. Reading and writing
  2. Computer literacy
  3. Web surfing literacy
  4. Cell phone & telephone literacy
  5. Smart phone literacy
  6. Body language literacy
  7. Financial literacy
  8. Cartooning
  9. Online commerce literacy
  10. Online security literacy
  11. Graphical literacy
  12. Animation literacy
  13. Audio literacy
  14. Video literacy
  15. Social networking literacy
  16. Gaming literacy
  17. Virtual world literacy
  18. 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.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

This LINK takes you to the Polish translation of Thomas’ article “Next Generation Literacy.”

15 Responses to “Next Generation Literacy”

Comments List

  1. Matt Grimes

    I'm not really following the distinction here. It seems to me that the methods of presentation may have shifted from paper to computer screen and pen to keyboard but the fundamental concept of literacy doesn't change. To me, literacy has more to do with the knowledge and skill of processing the written word and I tend to associate it with the concept of 'educated'. The former leads to the latter . In my experience the advance of technology has had a deleterious effect on the current generations ability to communicate effectively with the written word. Email, texting, and twitter are perfect examples of how to convey information but erroneous context. How many times have you had to correct an electronic communication with "that's not what I meant". The 18 skills you listed fall more into the following definition of literacy: accomplished in the fundamentals of a particular art or area of knowledge. In that context I agree that things are changing rapidly and I confess to falling way behind in some areas. But on the other hand that doesn't make me illiterate either ;-) And realistically, I think you could be accomplished in nearly all of the 18 and still be an idiot. Stick with the basics...learning to read and write is the core skill that gives you access to label of "literate".
    • admin

      You bring up some good points Matt, but the intent of the article is to draw people's attention to what it will take for people in the future to be a functional member of society, and that's changing. Reading and writing is not the only way for information to enter our heads, nor is it the only way for people to communicate. Certainly our society places a huge emphasis on it today, but that may not be true in the future. We tend to have a strong bias based on how we were raised. Future generations will look at it differently, and reading and writing alone are no longer enough.
  2. Patricia

    Kudos Matt! It's become a troubling problem every time anyone tries to claim that being computer savvy means your literate. Not true! Case in point, the high number of newly graduated high school seniors who enter colleges and universities (if admitted) with a fourth grade reading level. Let's not forget that one’s reading level also sets a precedent on one’s level of writing.
  3. Mimi K

    Tom is very much onto something, here: the need to re-envision and redefine what literacy is. While I am not sure that your criterion, Tom of the sources and #s of words consumed -- the information model -- I do think that this is a very promising starting point for developing a new vision, definition and -- what I think you left out -- purpose for "literacy." But you left out what is in my view the most critical form of 'literacy' there is: environmental/ecological, the ability to 'read' the natural world around us and make meaning from what we see. You also left out what I think is a critical point for understanding and appreciating the connection between our idea of literacy and the evolution of culture: in history, whenever a new form of literacy appears, the status quo in power gets hysterical. For example, the hysteria of the Catholic Church when Guttenberg's printing press made it possible for the people to actually READ the Bible and interpret it for themselves. The hysteria of patriarchy when women were taught to read. And the hysteria of the print-based, bookworms today over the internet, descrying the end of civilization as we know it from the loss of the hegemony of books. Really, it is just the end of civilization as THEY know it, the bookworms -- so that a new civilization can be born from the new literacies available to it.
    • admin

      Mimi, some great feedback. The information I used came from this paper "How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers" -
  4. Matt Grimes

    The skill sets you identified are no doubt going to be important for success in the future. We could say the same thing about previous generations transitioning from riding a horse to driving a car. The one consistent thing I've noticed about technology transitions is that the human brain must increase it's processing speed. There are a lot more inputs to process when driving in modern traffic than ambling down the trail on a horse. The younger generation is growing up in culture that requires considerable skills in multi-tasking to be successful. It seems that the further we go along the technological curve the faster and more numerous the inputs become. Can we just assume that the brain can automatically keep up the pace?
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Paul M Bauer</a>

    Literacy comes from the Latin littera, letters. And I don't think we should interpret it literally any more than we do "manufacture" which in Latin is "made by hand", or "technology", which in Greek is the study of art or craft. Meanings of words evolve with usage, as attested to by the list of 18 "literacies" above. And personally, I have no problem being called illiterate (having very limited knowledge) on some of these topics because I am.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Literacia 3.0 « vislumbres sobre visualidade</a>

    [...] futurista Thomas Frey apresenta em seu blog, uma pesquisa que trabalha a noção de literacia a partir do número de palavras que fluem pela [...]
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom, As noted by others, you are speaking about skill sets and sources, not new forms of literacy. You could add plumbing to your list because plumbers have their own suite of terms. A better view is fluency. When I play my first X-Box game, I don't know how to use the system. Over time, I gain skills and become fluent with the language and context presented by the system. Another is definitions. Word use is changing rapidly on a very wide range of fronts and in every language on Earth. I can loose fluency by not keeping up with a language... whether of ordinary conversation or of the special language of software coding. That I cannot speak or read Japanese prevents me from becoming fluent and keeping up with changes in their language to achieve and gain literacy in their written works. If I'd chosen an X-Box speaking Japanese, I would have to learn a new language and become fluent enough to operate the game. Your UN definition already denies your premise. Think fluency, not literacy. By the way... love the diagram of sources of information. Best, Gary
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Doris k.</a>

    Hi, Thomas Great post. I cited it in my blog (in portuguese), wondering how many new literacies must be taught in new design courses.
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mohan Arun L.</a>

    Thoughtful post. Remembering the definition for 'literacy' with the UN definition is too long to remember and recall at will, hence i will shorten it and equate 'literacy' with 'know-how'. It sounds much simpler. It also expands the scope of 'literacy' well into non-academia. If one looks at the list of 18 constituent types of literacy Tom has given in this post, its 'all about academia'. What about non-academic literacy? A car mechanic is no less literate than a software engineer if he or she earns more than what a s.e. does. Society has imprinted in our minds, that, a car mechanic is somehow lower in literacy status - or it may simply be because of skills supply and demand factor - but the fact remains that, the concept of literacy needs to expand its scope and content. I just had the privilege of watching a couple videos which may serve as supplementary viewing material for readers of this post. (this video is not so good, but the topic is sure interesting, relevant and meaningful to the content of this post - skills needed for the next generation to succeed - watch carefully where he says "mindset over skillset" and quotes studies that the UK is producing far less graduates than the decades of yesteryears.) (this video is a must-watch - 'changing education paradigms' - it covers hw our education system has been based to 'supply' the industrial revolution, how our classrooms are segregated by gender and how our education mills are following a factory model of producing people skilled in one subject alone, in the name of specialization. What will happen if education mills emphasize multi-disciplinary specializations? May be Tom can cover this in his next education-related post...
  10. jason.walker

    Tom F. is obviously an authoritative scholar over a giant barrage of technical areas. So give the man credit and at least research his info before you bring an idiots line of thinking into the equation, Matt G.
  11. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Wanda Taylor</a>

    Always interesting to read these posts. I wonder if we super-imposed these responses back 200 years and simply change the subject, if the responses would be the same? The point is always to re-imagine our life, and opportunities, differently as opposed to being stuck in the mindset that we have to transition as oppose to disrupt our thinking. It always boils down to the genius of asking better questions and I, for one, salute those, like Thomas, for their willingness to ask unpopular questions and then follow them to their logical conclusions....or, non-conclusions. Great article about the "spirit of the law and not the law itself".
  12. Justine Stewart

    Matt, I thank you for being the most interesting and original voice in the comments thread. Sadly, your questions remained unanswered. Just as a speed typist can type much faster than they can speak, a fast reader can absorb far more information in a shorter space of time by reading as opposed to listening. Re-engineering our brains may solve this problem, however what will be the changes to society as a result? Thomas Frey is clearly extremely intelligent and imaginative; he is also, like all of us, subject to the particular biases and worldviews that come from a lifetime of selective experience. From reading more about him, his interest in issues such as the destruction of the environment or the inequalities between the developed world and poorer nations seems to be very minimal. Likewise, I would prefer he discuss more about the way the brain behaves differently when interpreting the written word versus the spoken word before so breezily appearing to equate the two. I much prefer this article (by another futurist):

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