Digital Literacy, Digital Literaries

Remarks at the State Library of Queensland’s Digital Literacy Forum, 2nd June 2015.

I’d like to acknowledge Songwoman Maroochy Barambah, the Turrbul peoples and the broader Aboriginal nations who have maintained the land this wonderful library is built upon. Growing up on the Gold Coast in the 1980s, I knew that communities were working to protect their knowledge along this bank of the river, but I was not yet culturally literate enough to appreciate the importance of their efforts to do this under the most oppressive circumstances, and we all have much to thank them for. Thanks also to Jenny, Colin and the team here at SLQ for the invitation. Being an academic, I’ll take the opportunity to make more conceptual and speculative remarks than the rest of our presenters.

My first memory of digital literacy was pointless. 12 years of age, I learned how to use the BASIC programming language on my Commodore 64 to make pixels appear on the TV. I decided to extend this newfound skill by creating a visual epic. I glued together sheets of graph paper into a large sheet, traced my subject onto it and translated each of those pixels into a POKE command that I typed into my computer and periodically saved to cassette tape. After a couple of weeks of this, my realistic portrait of Garfield was born [note, that is not my image but very similar].

What was I learning? A kind of craft, one that felt contemporary. And as a viewer who consumed images on a screen day and night, the process of making something appear on a TV that was mine and no-one else’s – my views on copyright were somewhat more conservative back then –  fulfilled me in a way the more rote learning that school encouraged did not. I read a lot, as my good parents encouraged me too, but with little focus or objective other than the satisfaction of completing the book. It wasn’t until I was 14 or so and my uncle in Sydney introduced me to science fiction, where I really found the world of a book could be my own. But that space of “programming” would feel like mine from the beginning. I was making my own world. And luckily the C64 was cheap enough for my parents to afford it, as our library could not.

If it were today, the construction would probably be on Minecraft, with its billions of square kilometers of social pixelation, and I would probably, like my friend’s nephew, be making YouTube how-to videos on minecraft techniques. No doubt my childhood videos would have the smug air that characterises the future teacher. I would be actively working in this international “social form” of production, instead of the community of people making cool things I imagined I was joining through my purchases of Computer and Video Games magazine. But that more limited version was still a training of the imagination, to be able to sense a community not directly in front of me.

The many hours learning those skills in an autodidactic way did not come to mean something more economically productive until  the World Wide Web came along in the early 1990s, when I was starting to get paid for working as a writer and designer in music and arts publishing. I never remember feeling intimidated by the coding of hypertext markup language or the emergence of JavaScript, despite not having had any technical or mathematical training. I just knew that to get what you wanted to happen to happen, you had to make your demands flexible to the capability of the machine, and then puzzle it out. This turned out to be much more enjoyable than trying to reverse engineer a human boss or my parents. This “literacy” was the experience of autonomy, of freedom. As my university colleague, the Gunditjmara artist Professor Richard Frankland notes, “When you’ve got art, you’ve got voice and when you’ve got voice, you’ve got freedom, and when you’ve got freedom, you’ve got responsibility.’’

Nothing in my story will be news to any educator – we know that coercion is the opposite of learning. This is why one of the architects of the modern university, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, advocated the principle of freedom to teach and freedom to learn. Yet the growing focus on literacy as an object of policy seems to be accompanied by ever more authoritarian assessment regimes to ensure that the knowledge has been learned in the right way and to discipline those who have not. University of California scholars Glynda Hull and Gregorio Hernandez note that as “definitions of literacy continue to be debated, pendulum swings in public policy have shifted the attention of schools and teachers to what some consider increasingly narrow understandings of literacy. This narrowing has occurred even as a great deal of research has simultaneously documented the considerable intellectual accomplishments of children, youth, and adults in out-of-school settings, accomplishments that often contrast their poor school- based performance and suggest a different view of their potential as capable learners and doers in the world.”

In a different paper, working with Elizabeth B. Moje, Glynda Hull asked the question: “What is the development of literacy the development of?” Their summary of the research on new literacies is as follows.

  1. Literacy learning is situated in and mediated by social and cultural interactions and tools.

  2. Literacy learning occurs via a range and blend of explicit and implicit teaching, usually guided by interaction with a more knowledgeable other over time.

  3. Across the age range and from all social/cultural groups, people learn and practice literacy outside of school, often with high degrees of proficiency.

  4. To learn literacy well, students need meaningful purposes for engaging in literate practice and opportunities to use literacy for a broad range of life activities related to goals and desires beyond the moment of instruction.

  5. Learners require, and literate ability now consists of, facility with composing, interpreting, and transforming information and knowledge across various forms of representation [not only text].

This summary of research should be uncontroversial, yet the discourses of literacy seem to ever shrink the forms of acceptable learning and capability. My proposition is that rather than arguing over the benefits or not of literacy, our best guide to the preparation of humans for the future will come from attention to a sustained and expanded notion of the literary. What does the literary mean in the age of networked ICTs? Was my experience of copying Garfield into the computer an experience of the literary? Traditionalists would scoff at the notion, but I argue that it was.  Obviously today we must include gaming, and social media, which have generated more archival material than all the libraries together could hold in a physical form. To consider these forms as having the potential for the literary is to ask what it would mean today to become a writer, rather than simply someone who can functionally write. I usually teach in art schools, where a commonplace is that you can teach someone to paint, but you can’t teach them to want to be an artist. But you can teach them not to want to be an artist, simply via various mechanisms of bureaucratic power and inattention to their aspiration, which is something we try to avoid.

Two of the most potent recent theorists of writing, the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, have used the term teleopoeisis in describing the figuring of the literary. From the Greek roots tele– (at a distance – all communication is, structurally, telecommunication, says Spivak) and poeisis, (making, transforming, continuing), Spivak describes it as an imaginative making that reaches toward the distant other. It speaks to that virtual space of reading and writing that precedes the Internet, where “to be born human is to be angled toward others” and so, we create through our language a space where others come to rest.

Spivak and Derrida emphasize reading as a creative act, something too often lost in our literacy discussions. The act of crafting language is not, writers and artists tell us, the creative flash of inspiration, as we work in the languages we have been handed down from the past. Finding one’s own form for a creative idea is satisfying but is also, in the end, the hard work of crafting. The “creative moment” comes in our experience of our world being touched by the world of the text we read, even the other world we first wrote ourselves, as each writer is their own first reader. When we read, we sense the freedom that comes from entering another world, and in that world we can remake our own interior world. We depart from the banal demands of the every day to find ourselves in another time and space that touches our own. In this idea of a world created within each work, we start to see why the library has been such a social force. It is not simply a collection of facts, like an encyclopedia. It is a universe of different worlds we can use to become different, by connecting ourselves to different worlds. This kind of reading – the most powerful there is – resists external evaluation.

Derrida and Spivak point out in their different ways that this is not an experience limited to the alphabetic language. Image, sound, spoken word share this same generic structure: the leaving of a trace or mark, its reception by others after the fact. YouTube did not set out to become a library, but they now occupy the clearest contemporary analogue to that archive of worlds once held by the library. The walls of the traditional library, built strong to protect and preserve, have become permeable, as the archive comes to exist outside it.

In our Research Unit’s work on Participatory Public Space, we have talked to a number of people in the library sector about how they are responding to this new relation between public and private worlds, where the archived traces of worlds are aggregated into a globalising sea of data. A common theme has been the potential to bring the realtime community of the Internet into the library space, to allow the exchange between self and other to gain a palpable presence, an ethical relation of community that complicates the economic tendency to treat people as providers of information that are more or less useful to us as individuals.  [This is where the world-leading work of SLQ’s The Edge is inspirational, with its mission to “provide Queenslanders of all ages with the opportunity and inspiration to explore creativity.”] And as we were talking on freedom earlier, it’s worth noting the number of respondents in our research who noted the absence of financial transactions in the library as an important component in its publicness – it one of the few remaining places in our world where someone is not after your wallet.

This quote from Hamish Curry, formerly of the State Library of Victoria, captures this emerging agenda succinctly:

Libraries inherently have been about the written word. They’ve been about enormous collections. In my view, libraries have tended to be about service to the individual. So you have a need that you want from the library, you come to the library, there is a transaction there about what I can help you do. Libraries, while they have talked about themselves as being community hubs, they’re not hubs of being communities of people using the library, because as soon as you put a group in the library you get noise, and noise is the enemy of the culture of libraries. So the language that’s shifting in the culture of libraries is about we need to embrace the communities more and work out ways in which we can support group experiences in the library, because then you get shared experience – it’s the idea of what’s called sometimes ‘co- creation’. So that a group of people come in, maybe to a makerspace, they help create something that then the library keeps, or it adds something back to the library, and then that group of people have been able to make an impact back, and they can see that. It’s almost like an acknowledgement of their contribution to the library. — Hamish Curry, Education Manager, Learning Services, State Library of Victoria. (2nd August 2013)

Many of the thinkers behind contemporary libraries have emphasized that this is not a change in the library’s mission but a necessary rethinking of it due to the different structure and affordances of the knowledge archive. If so, rather than simply looking at technological challenges, we could revisit some of the classic rationales for libraries, such as the Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan’s classic Five Laws of Library Science (1931):

  1.  Books are for use.
  2.  Every reader his/her book.
  3.  Every book its reader.
  4.  Save the time of the reader.
  5.  The library is a growing organism.

How could we capture the universality and openness of this aspiration for today’s libraries, integrated as they are into commercial platforms of licensed intellectual property? We could perhaps rethink on the back of an envelope the laws of Library Science for the networked, multi-modal library in this way:

  1.  Media connect communities.
  2.  Every reader his/her community.
  3.  Every reader his/her means of joining that community.
  4.  All media their user.
  5.  Give time to the user.
  6.  The library is a growing organism.

In closing, today there has been a lot of discussion about platforms, and from our research the best early thinking on this comes from Italian organizational theorist Claudio Ciborra in his analysis of the “platform organisation.” Using Olivetti in 1989 as an example, Ciborra describes the difference between the platform organisation and the network organisation, where the platform is a “system of schemes, arrangements and resources”. Whereas the network  organization is “a flexible cluster of specialised units coordinated by market mechanisms instead of a vertical chain of command”. The platform organisation reflects the network  model at the level of a network of routines and transactions, but also has a higher layer where the “re-architecting of structures is played out”, and it is the “recombination of bundles of routines and transactions” that matters more than the specific properties of the network. This “decoupling of process know-how” from the more mundane generation of product innovations leads to a dualistic system, where “strategic management mainly consists in placing bets about what will be its next primary task; all the other choices such as alliances, vertical integration and so on, follow the provisional outcome of such bets.” (We can think of Apple and the iPod/iPhone and now health and home automation; Google in mapping; Samsung in bio-similar pharmaceuticals). The tools used to undertake this “re-architecture” today include intellectual property, cross-border financial engineering techniques and global supply chain management, that are out of reach of most organisations or governments.

It is useful to consider how platforms operate, as the Internet is now less a network of thousands or millions of individual computers as we conceived of it in the 1990s (30 companies now account for over half of Internet traffic), and our use of the network increasingly tied to mutually incompatible interfaces and hardware devices between platforms such as Apple/Google; Facebook/Twitter, etc. As the globalization and privatisation of digital infrastructure precedes apace, we are becoming less citizens belonging to a nation-state governed by laws, and more a consumer belonging to a commercial platform governed by license agreements – the sheer number of clauses in these contracts many of us clicked “agree” to would dwarf national legislation. These are changes in the structure of the public sphere are not the library’s to control, as the power of social media platforms is not simply the possession of proprietary algorithms or proprietary data, but depends on the combination of both. Access to data (e.g. open data) without capacity to effectively use it, is insufficient. Today, few, if any institutions – including government agencies, universities, libraries or public broadcasters –  possess the required scale of analytic capacity to use the volumes of data generated by the platform and the ability to aggregate it in ways to provide a compelling alternative “town square”.

Yet as a customary means of access to information, libraries have the mandate and potential to be a crucial interface to other worlds and communities which exceed the parameters of aggregated consumer attention housed in the new media platform. This freedom may emerge in the public’s ability to move around and between platforms, a cosmopolitan impulse to cross digital borders and move between jurisdictions. In the platformed world, this movement that rests less on productive literacy within a platform and more on skill in reading and interpretation of the digital platform’s openings and exits to others. The physical platform the library provides still connects communities together, enabling that reading of the digital terrain to be shared hand-to-hand and face-to-face – but the link to the information platforms have been shifted outside the library’s control. Perhaps here is the challenge of digital literacy – less to develop the individual in the public schooling model, and more for library organisations to learn to read the rapidly changing digital environment that underpins the library’s ability to continue its mission to support the development of literate publics.