May 30, 2008

On Transliteracy

by Nick Montfort · , 10:08 am

Sue Thomas spoke this morning at the ELO Visionary Landscapes conference about the concept of transliteracy that she and others have put forth. Online resources about this idea can be found at and in the First Monday article “Transliteracy: Crossing Divides.”

The First Monday article defines this concept, an enlarged idea of literacy, as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social network.”

One of the nuances not really discussed in the responses by Talan Memmott and Rob Witting, or in the discussion afterwards, is that even an enlarged view of literacy is still not large enough to describe full, empowered engagement with the computer. (Actually, Daniel Howe’s question about code did at least touch upon this issue.) “Transliteracy” reads the computer as a communication device, but as I understand it, this concept does not fully embrace the computer as a vehicle for simulation and computation – as a device for augmenting human intellect or a tool for thought. That comptuers can be programmed is not mentioned in the First Monday article, for instance.

We recognize that if we want to learn to drive a car, “automotive literacy” is not enough. We need to understand how to operate a vehicle – as well as learning the protocols of the road. “Computer literacy” seemed to me to be a pretty watered-down idea decades ago, one that seems feeble in comparison to “computer liberation.” While a broader idea of literacy may be sensible, we shouldn’t let our urge to expand the concept of literacy cause us to reduce our understanding of what the computer can do.

2 Responses to “On Transliteracy”

  1. Sue Thomas Says:

    Nick, I totally agree with you. And I don’t think one definition will ever be the best one. I’d like to see numerous definitions of transliteracy connected by a unifying ethos which ensures that nothing is left out. If anything, my plea is to point the way to transliteracy whenever anyone attempts to lock down definitions. The coming of the digital brings uncertainty in just about every direction, and it’s important that we embrace it.

    A question though – do you mean that you want everyone to understand what a computer can do? Or are you happy just for that skill to receive proper recognition?

  2. josh g. Says:

    I’m torn between wanting to agree with you completely, and simultaneously wondering (as Sue Thomas does) how much comprehension of programming is reasonable to expect of the general public.

    However, there is a lot of middle ground between “can’t program” and “professional software engineer”, and I think we can aim at least somewhere in the middle. After all, we expect everyone in public education to learn the basics of both writing prose and comprehending mechanical physics (gears, levers, force, etc).* So no matter whether we fall back on a media or engineering analogy, there is precedent to suggest moving basic computer literacy into a middle ground where you can understand enough to write/engineer a simple program and be able to appreciate what goes into creating a larger one.

    I think a big step in the right direction would be providing educators with highly accessible (but powerful) coding tools and languages. They’re already out there in the wild, but I know around here the high school “computer studies” curriculum basically amounts to the teacher using whatever they happen to be familiar with. So teachers who try to make programming mandatory but are using cluttered, professional-targeted IDEs such as Visual Studio, and languages such as C# / Java which force you to leap headlong into OOP code just to make “Hello World” run, end up scaring away students and the course program falters. Options such as Processing don’t even make a blip on their radar because no one is actively making them known on a curriculum level.

    *heck, here in B.C. they’re moving electrical circuit calculations such as finding the equivalent resistance of a set of parallel resistors into the grade 9 science curriculum. We’re already pretty much expecting students to understand the basic principles behind how a TV set works!

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