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.