Transliteracy; crossing divides

Posted on Tuesday, 8 January, 2008 by

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Sue Thomas and the other authors of this article have described a concept which is both easy and hard to understand: transliteracy. Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media. In the article they define the term, and give examples.

Trans in transliteracy is “across” as well as “beyond”. The article does not view our expressions moving from print to digital to Internet as a linear historical progress, but as an ecology in which all forms of expression, of communication, co-exist and complement each other. They state that transliteracy is the most important skill for our time. But it is defenitely not new: the way the landscape or artefacts hold stories or how songs describe routes are older examples. Multimedia and multi modalities of online and offline worlds, require us to synthesize and shift gears all day. The concept “transliteracy” might help to understand human communication. We are moving into a more transliterate world again, after a period in which written communication has dominated.

Some examples that made sense to me:

“The philosopher Socrates, who eschewed learning to read and write in a
culture where such practices were unusual, believed that the fixed
nature of writing limits thought and enquiry.”

“a hypertext story, with its many diversions and elaborations, could be
eerily similar in form to the telling of family holiday memories.”

“Behaviors hitherto seen as dysfunctional, such as dyslexia, attention
deficit disorder, and even synaesthesia, may actually be useful
literacies in less textual environments like computer games (and,
indeed, real life) which privilege multimodality over fixed–type print.”

“Travel to other countries often introduces us to minor differences in
cultural practices which demand constant adjustment. Although this can
sometimes be stressful, it can also be enjoyable as the visitor
increases their level of transliteracy in the new environment.”

(I have always felt that travelling, being exposed to different cultures has helped me to learn; to be more transliterate, one could now say. Being illiterate, when visiting countries that use other scripts, also is quite interesting. I think my own interest in the Internet is to do with being between cultures. I have also wondered if many bloggers are travellers. Is the common factor the transliteracy?)

What I like about the view of the paper is how it both relativates the importance of technology (showing that telling campfire stories while drawing on the cave walls are not so different from mash-ups and chat forums; most new practices are not at all new) and acknowledges that it IS important, and it might actually influence our thinking or communicating: “I think the collective (Web 2.0) nature of communication is both a by–product and a cause of transliteracy.”

What I like also is the optimist view (“crossing divides” in the title!) from the paper. One quoted repondent says:

“The move to the digital era could be as democratizing as the birth of
the printing press was in the fifteenth century. It will bring the
ability to capture and share human experiences, learning and
entertainment in far more intuitive ways than the age of literacy
allowed.”

And this, is what I think is very true:

“With increasing specialization in business and academia in recent
years, this has led to an increasing need for organizations and
individuals to develop wider, more open networks, partnerships and
trusted communities to share ideas and to innovate. In particular, a
powerful source of innovation is to collaborate across traditional
boundaries, be they organizational, disciplinary or geographic.
Therefore, much of the discussion centered upon how can we communicate
effectively and build trust across these disparate communities.
Technology definitely has a major role to play in supporting these
boundary–disrupting collaborations, but perhaps there is a need to
further develop most peoples’ ‘transliteracy’ skills.”

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