A New Literacy?

One consideration within my larger discussion and interest of new media (NM) as a return to orality is that it requires a new literacy. Clearly, I do not believe that the advent of podcasting and comparable trends are returning us to a solely oral culture. You can’t unknow what you know. That is, we have come this far with technological advancements in communication  (Plato to papyrus to pencils to programming to projectors to processors to podcasts). Short of events following some apocalyptic future, we are not going to throw away all such communication technologies and go back to solely oral exchanges.

So, the direction I’m pushing this theory is that we, as a technological culture have this trend (or group of related trends) within NM that has brought about a new orality. Is it a “return”? It is, in the sense that it again places with us the ability to communicate orally/aurally in way that we’ve not relied upon in centuries. However, it includes communication methods that we’ve used daily throughout our transition from oral to literate culture, and includes new methods, as well. It is, perhaps, this merging of tradition and more recent technology, that make NM an entirely new concept. So, in that sense, NM is not a return as much as it is a largely new method of presentation and communication with similarities to oral cultural and aspects that can be traced from oral culture to literate to print to film to Web to NM.

But to use the NM, both as a listener/audience and as a speaker/user, requires something new, something unlike that experienced in the past, yet with identifiable similarities. In general, it requires a new literacy. Not so unlike what we mean when we say one is “computer literate,” there are certain technological, software, hardware, and navigational skills one must obtain. However, there is something additional to this concept of a new literacy.

The transformation from oral to text/print was the move from sound to visual. NM is also visual; however, it is different from written or printed text in a number of ways, for example, New Media:

  • Is interactive, and this interactivity occurs at two points:
    1. When one searches for, locates, subscribe to, downloads, and listens to material. In many ways, this process is like the canon of Invention (a similarity I will greatly detail later in a larger discussion of the canons and NM).
    2. When one is interacting with the computer or handheld device onto which the user has saved the file. Granted, this could be compared with the interactivity of a book (searching for, locating, obtaining, turning pages, etc). But, it is clearly different than interactivity with text in the way users think about and use it.
  • Can be non-linear and even dynamic
    • This point does tie into interactivity. Sound can be layered, played forward or backward, paused, rewound, replayed, etc., but it is still linear. However, the structure and organization [ties into the canon of arrangement/organization] is very different from texts, which are linear.
      • Consider the new iPod or iPhone designs in which one can:
        • Drag-and-drop files, file location, file duration status (point during a playing audio/video file).
        • Rank files, cross-reference them.
        • Store a single multiple file in seemingly multiple locations. That is, the file actually exists in only one place and takes up memory (canon?) only in this one spot. But that file can be listed in multiple folders, under multiple headings, etc.Imagine having a single book that you could put in multiple places in your library. One might place James Joyce under fiction, literature, poetry, history, “J,” 1939, Dublin, favorites, AND recently/currently read. This is not possible without buying multiple copies. Yet, referencing a single location, once can do this.
    • NM is dynamic. One can store virtually a file in multiple places, but also cross-reference, cross-link, and hyperlink files.
  • Incorporates multimedia
    • Like a presentation in traditional oral culture, an NM presentation could include just a talking head (if that’s all you could see), a whole body, or multiple people. Additionally, either the traditional method or that of NM could:
      • Include the speaker(s); textual elements, instructional material, or other multimedia;
      • Cut from one person to another one, or from live/spontaneous to rehearsed/recorded speech; or
      • Incorporate interactive portions of the speech.
    • Included sound can be voice, music, sound effects, or historical recordings.
      • This final item is interesting, as it points to a unique aspect of NM over traditional orality; NM is not limited to a fixed and live timeline. That is, one can mix pre-recorded and live elements, and even draw in recorded historical events.
      • Imagine trying to incorporate all of these elements into a live speech. The example goes from highly cumbersome to science fiction if one needed to bring, for a live speech, a full orchestra, a chicken, a forty foot ape, and the resurrected Dr. Martin Luther King.

We (many scholars/authors) have traced the transformation of oral culture to print and beyond and discussed various effects it has had on culture, technology, economy, politics, etc. However, New Media presents very new elements that need to be considered, as well. In the upcoming posts, I will look at some of the effects NM has had on culture.

One Response to “A New Literacy?”

  1. Comment From thbarrow on July 15th, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Throughout this post, I am defining what New Media (NM). is. All the points made herein still apply; however, I have really focused the NM consideration and have recently expended this post as a section in a paper in which I discuss that these aspects of a new literacy and of how NM is different from printed texts, is really about how they are different from digital orality.

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