in New Literacies

Digital Literacy, Pragmatism and the Social Construction of Reality

Note: This blog post is to clarify my thoughts on the subject and provide an easy point-of-reference as I begin to write the Literature Review section of my Ed.D. thesis. Feel free to skip it if that’s not the reason for which what you came here/subscribed to my RSS feed! You can read my thesis proposal here and I collate links and quotes from my research on my wiki. :-)

As I ‘write’ this I am looking through corrective lenses at a screen that is a representation of a digital ‘reality’. The alphabet by which the words and sentences are constructed is a social construct, as is the programming language by which the website on which you’re reading this came into existence. This also applies to concepts such as ‘bachelor’, ‘virgin’ and, indeed, any other idea that presupposes a limit to its application.

‘Digital literacy’ is one such concept. It is a social construct that has gained some momentum by its explanatory power in the face of technological change that has left some bewildered by the abilities of one generation with respect to another. That the term ‘literacy’ is attached to the concept shows the historical legacy, applicability and origin of the term. It is a concept mostly applied by an older generation about a younger generation (and especially the attitude towards technology of the latter).

Literacy used to have a rather precise definition: the ability to read and write with a pre-determined level of proficiency. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, literacy has been applied to much more wide-ranging concepts such as Multimedia literacy, Computer literacy, Information literacy, Technacy (or Technological literacy), Critical literacy, Media literacy, and Health literacy. This appears to be akin to early descriptions of cars as ‘horseless carriages’, the understanding of the new through an old, outdated framework. Or, to put it more formally, in the words of Berger & Luckmann (2002:49-50),

What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future.

Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.

What is necessary, therefore, when looking at concepts that are defined socially and in the light of their historical use, is to determine their ‘cash-value’. The Pragmatic method, invented (arguably) jointly by C.S. Peirce and William James, would seem to be a useful approach. James states the method thus (James 1995:21),

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as 'God' or 'the Absolute'] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

To explain a difference between ‘standard’ literacy and ‘digital’ literacy, therefore, means to see what difference there is between the two in practice:

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. (James 1995:20)

It is necessary to go beyond simple ontological arguments as to whether or not ‘digital literacy’ exists and instead flesh out whether belief in such a concept would make a tangible difference. My thesis will be concerned less with dogmatic attack or defence of particular terms and rather more with the ‘cash-value’ of concepts such as ‘digital literacy’.

Associated ideas such as ‘digital natives’ vs ‘digital immigrants’ (or more recent distinctions such as ‘digital resident/outsider’) will tangentially be discussed, especially in their usefulness as ways of understanding attitudes towards technology. The latter term – ‘technology’ – shall also be defined more accurately, perhaps as having a ‘digital’ aspect rather than being the use of any man-made object to achieve an particular human end.

My idea when beginning my thesis is that I shall not discover a coherent set of ideas and assumptions behind terms such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competency’, ‘digital fluency’, and the like. Still, as heuristics, as commonly-agreed methods by which to understand an observed difference, they will ‘work’ and have a ‘cash-value’ during an indeterminate and temporary period. Much, in fact, like the term ‘horseless carriage’. :-p

(Image credit: yellow rope with knot by limonada @ Flickr)

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