Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity

by Doug Belshaw & Steve Higgins


This paper argues that ‘digital literacy’ is an ambiguous term. Like the term ‘digital native‘ before it, the use of the term ‘digital literacy’ is in the process of passing through three phases of ambiguity: generative, creative, and productive. These terms are not merely vague, but ambiguous in ways originally identified by Empson (1930) and subsequently augmented by Robinson (1941) and Abbott (1997). A model is developed which helps to explain the shift in usage of digital literacy from a ‘generatively ambiguous’ term to one which is (or will be) ‘productively ambiguous’.


The Hatter opened his eyes very wide... but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'
`Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. `I'm glad they've begun asking riddles. -- I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud.
`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare.
`Exactly so,' said Alice.
`Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.
`I do,' Alice hastily replied; `at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'
`Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

We are surrounded by ambiguity and vagueness in everyday life. ‘Ambiguity’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘capability of being understood in two or more ways’ whereas if something is ‘vague’ it is ‘couched in general or indefinite terms’ being ‘not definitely or precisely expressed’ (OED no date). Given the above definitions, the two terms are very closely linked. Empson (1930), for example, does not draw a distinction between them, setting out seven types of ambiguity of which several could be argued to be examples of ‘vagueness’.

We argue in this paper that Empson’s seven types of ambiguity form a continuum through which terms may pass. This continuum has three reasonably-distinct parts, from the most ambiguous to the least ambiguous: generative ambiguity, creative ambiguity and productive ambiguity. We argue that the use of the term ‘digital literacy’ has changed since it was popularised by Paul Gilster (1997) but that it remains mid-way through this continuum of ambiguity. The term ‘digital native’, by way of contrast, is further along this continuum, despite it being a younger term.

The continuum of ambiguity is given in diagrammatic form in the Appendix with a much-simplified version given below. Ambiguous terms suffer an imbalance in the denotative (surface-level) information and connotative (symbolic) information conveyed to individuals. As the usage of terms becomes less ambiguous they can be seen as moving towards the right of the overlap in the diagram:

Ambiguous terms and phases of ambiguity

With reference to the above diagram, we identify three distinct, but overlapping parts of the continuum of ambiguity: generative, creative, and productive. We will explore each of these in turn.

Generative ambiguity

Aristotle believed he had an answer to the difficulties presented by ambiguity. “Since we cannot introduce the realities themselves into our discussions,” he stated, “but have to use words as symbols for them, we suppose that what follows in the words will follow in the realities too.” The problem is that “whereas words and the quantity of sentences are limited, realities are unlimited in number” (Aristotle, SE 1, 165a6 ff, quoted in Robinson, 1941, p.144). This, then, is the first part of the continuum: an individual gives a name to a nebulous collection of thoughts and ideas. This left-hand side of the continuum is most closely related to vagueness; we call this part Generative ambiguity.

‘Zeugmas’ are an example of the kinds of terms that may reside within Generative ambiguity. These are figures of speech that join two or more parts of a sentence into a single noun. With our example of ‘digital literacy,’ for example, it is unclear whether the emphasis is upon the ‘digital’ (and therefore an example of a Prozeugma) or upon the ‘literacy’ (and therefore a Hypozeugma). Is one part of the term stressed more than the other? If so, is the stress upon the ‘digital’ part or the ‘literacy’ part of ‘digital literacy’? No aspect of the term is fixed within the part of the ambiguity continuum we have named Generative ambiguity. This leads to definitions of terms that are so ambiguous as to be almost vague in the way discussed in the introduction.

The boundary between Generative ambiguity and Creative ambiguity comes through what Robinson (1941) identifies as ‘relational univocity.’ This is a “reaction of the context with the old sense” (Robinson, 1941, p.149) which destabilises the existing meaning of a word through use in a new context (or being yoked with another in a novel way). Robinson cites Aristotle’s explanation of ‘healthy’ as an example of relational univocity: ‘healthy’ can be applied to things as diverse as ‘healthy’ exercise (causitive), a ‘healthy’ complexion (indicative), and ‘healthy’ roses (possessive) (Robinson, 1941, p.143). “[E]ach particular case has to be learned from the context,” states Robinson, with relational univocity being “a bond that holds together the various meanings of an ambiguous word” (Robinson, 1941, p.143).

Creative ambiguity

Terms that are defined in such a way so as fit with the part of the continuum we identify as Creative ambiguity are less ambiguous than those within Generative ambiguity. Empson’s fourth type of ambiguity is a good example of how a term such as ‘digital literacy’ can be ambiguous in the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum. Such a situation happens, he states, when “two or more meanings of a statement do not agree among themselves, but combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author” (Empson, 1930, p.133). It is “the most important aspect of a thing, not the most complicated” of which we are conscious, he continues, as “the subsidiary complexities, once they have been understood, merely leave an impression in the mind” (Empson, 1930, p.133).

Within the part of the continuum we name Creative ambiguity, then, one aspect of the term is fixed, much in the way a plank of wood nailed to a wall would have 360-degrees of movement around a single point. This point of reference allows others to co-construct meaning and the term to enter a wider community for discussion and debate. As Empson suggests, if the term is re-formulated in a way that is slightly less ambiguous, then this is then what he calls the third type of ambiguity. This happens when “two ideas, which are connected only by being both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simultaneously” (Empson, 1930, p.102). The ambiguity persists due to the tension caused by “the sharpness of distinction between the two meanings” (Empson, 1930, p.102). This could cause individuals and communities to ‘talk past one another’ if, for example, one used ‘digital’ as a substitute for ‘digital lifestyle’ whilst another used ‘digital’ as shorthand for ‘digital hardware and software’.

As with ‘relational univocity,’ there is a boundary between the part of the ambiguity continuum we have marked out as Creative ambiguity and that which we have called Productive ambiguity. In this case the term is what Robinson (1941) names ‘sliding ambiguity.’ This occurs when a term covers a wide area and refers alternately to larger and smaller arts of that area. Such a term embraces a big complex of conceptions, put together under one word because we feel them to be somehow connected, or because we have not clearly distinguished them (Robinson, 1941, p.142).

Whilst a level of consensus can exist within a given community within this Creative ambiguity part of the continuum, it nevertheless remains highly contextual. It is dependent, to a great extent, upon what is left unsaid - especially upon the unspoken assumptions about the “subsidiary complexities” that exist at the level of impression. The unknown element in the ambiguity (for example, time, area, or context) means that the term cannot ordinarily yet be operationalised within contexts other than communities who share prior understandings and unspoken assumptions.

Productive ambiguity

In order for an ambiguous term to be operationalised, in order for it to be able to ‘do some work’ and make a difference in practice, then people must redefine it in such a way as to enter the part of the continuum we name Productive ambiguity. This is the least ambiguous part of the continuum, an area in which more familiar types of ambiguity such as metaphor are used (either consciously or unconsciously) in definitions. Empson defines the second type of ambiguity, for example, as occurring when “two or more meanings are resolved into one” (Empson, 1930, p.48). This second type of ambiguity (which Abbott (1997) calls ‘ambiguity of locus’) is the most commonly-observable example of ambiguity, believes Empson. Examples tend to exhibit a directness of feeling whilst the concept behind the feeling is ambiguous. The concept may exhibit either psychological or logical complexity (or both) but this is masked by the seemingly-intuitive nature of the term. Abbott explains that this type of ambiguity springs from one thing being taken as indicating something about another. He gives the example of divorce rates being taken to indicate something about the status of ‘the family,’ or the erosion of ‘community stability,’ for example. “The ambiguity about the meaning of the indicator arises in part through the inclusion of families within communities” (Abbott, 1997, p.362) – in other words, one ambiguous term is situated within another.

The very least ambiguous type of ambiguity in the continuum is Empson’s first type. It is straight metaphor, something Empson calls “the fundamental situation” whereby “a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once” (Empson, 1930, p.2). The term, continues Empson, is not stressed in relation to the rest of the sentence “but as if to fill out the sentence... signal[ling] to the reader what he is meant to take for granted” (Empson, 1930, p.3). Robinson names this Naive ambiguity, citing Plato’s Socratic dialogues as an example:

“The early dialogues frequently represent Socrates as seeking for definitions of terms. Now, before we seek to define a term we should make sure that it has only one sense, or at least which of its senses we are trying to define. But Socrates never does this in the Platonic dialogues. In every case he puts the question and proceeds to look for an answer with the most perfect coincidence that the word means the same thing every time it is used.” (Robinson, 1941, p.140)

This is the same type of ambiguity that Abbott (1997) names Semantic ambiguity, arising from the assumption that one thing ‘means’ another and that this meaning is stable. With Socrates, ambiguity surrounding the meaning of terms is seen as a bad thing, as something to be avoided. Instead, Abbott presents Semantic ambiguity, the first type of ambiguity, as a fact of life. Years in school, for example, can ‘mean’ education “in the sense that... time spent in school results in more or less monotonic increase in education”. At the same time, however, years in school also ‘means’ “exposure to popular culture [and] bureaucracy” as well as “reduced time available for criminal activity” (Abbott, 1997, p.361). It is a “simple type of multiple meaning... a situation where one fact means several things at once without those things resolving into any one meaning” (Abbott, 1997, p.361-2).

Terms within the Productive part of the ambiguity continuum have a stronger denotative element than in the Creative and Generative phases. Stability is achieved through alignment, often due to the pronouncement of an authoritative voice or outlet. This can take the form of a well-respected individual in a given field, government policy, or mass-media convergence on the meaning of a term. Such alignment allows a greater level of specificity, with rules, laws, formal processes and guidelines created as a result of the term’s operationalisation. Movement through the whole continuum is akin to a substance moving through the states of gas, liquid and solid. Generative ambiguity is akin to the ‘gaseous‘ phase, whilst Creative ambiguity is more of a ‘liquid‘ phase. The move to the ‘solid’ phase of Productive ambiguity comes through a process akin to a liquid ‘setting’.

Digital literacy and digital natives

Where do definitions of ‘digital literacy’ currently reside on this continuum? Have definitions, much like definitions of ‘digital native’ been formulated in progressively less ambiguous ways, moving from Generative ambiguity through Creative ambiguity and into Productive ambiguity? We would suggest not. Whereas the term ‘digital native’ is akin to what Richard Rorty would define as ‘dead metaphor’ (formulaic and unproductive), the term ‘digital literacy’ continues to be defined and re-defined in new and innovative ways.

The early ‘academic’ writing about the concept of ‘digital natives’ was not peer-reviewed. It often appeared in magazines for teachers and librarians and featured a journalistic or even hyperbolic style:

“If television was a defining influence over the boomer generation, what is shaping the generation of students entering higher education today? A growing number of educators are recognizing that this generation has been heavily influenced by the pervasive digital media that has surrounded them literally since birth. Marc Prensky coined the term “Digital Native” (Presky, 2001) [sic] to describe this generation. The moniker communicates clearly that these are not subtle changes to have occurred, but instead this is a generation of students who act - and perhaps even think - differently than those that are educating them - the so-called “Digital Immigrants.” (Gaston, 2006, p.1)

More recent peer-reviewed papers have pointed out the lack of an evidence base for Prensky’s claims (Bayne & Ross 2007; Bennett, Maton & Kervin 2008; Helsper & Enyon 2010; Bennett & Maton 2010). Given the devastating critique - especially that of Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008) who equated ‘digital native’ with a ‘moral panic’ - the term is a Rortyian dead metaphor in the world of serious academia. It remains, however, a widely-cited term in magazines for teachers and librarians.

‘Digital literacy’ is also a term with different usage depending on the community within which it is used. The difference here, however, is that it is a term that originated in academic research and has filtered through to practitioners and other interested parties. It is a term that is used in various ways depending upon context: some definitions equate ‘digital literacy’ with computer skills, whilst others see it involving the kind of criticality more usually ascribed to ‘media literacy.’ Gilster, in Digital Literacy, for example, defines the term as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers” (Gilster, 1997, p.215). This could be seen as an example of the sixth type of ambiguity within the overall continuum as, in defining the ambiguous term, more ambiguity is introduced. What counts as a ‘format’, a ‘source’, or even a ‘computer’ for Gilster?

A common way in which ‘digital literacy’ is ambiguously-framed is using the concept of ‘relational univocity’ discussed earlier. An example of this is given by ETS (the US Educational Testing Service) which defines digital literacy as:

“[T]he ability to use digital technology, communication tools and/or networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society.' ( It comprises 'the ability to use technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate, and communicate information, and the possession of a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information.” (Lankshear, 2006, p.23)

This definition uses ‘technology‘ as shorthand for particular tools, techniques and attitudes of mind and therefore depends upon the reader to fill in the gaps. Another example of this is Erstad’s (2008) attempt at a definition of ‘digital literacy’ which, instead of clarifying the issue, seems to become more ambiguous as each word is added:

"One of the key challenges in [developments of everyday practices] is the issue of digital literacy. This relates to the extent to which citizens have the necessary competence to take advantage of the possibilities given by new technologies in different settings." (Erstad, in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008, p.177)

The definitions of ‘digital literacy’ within the Generative ambiguity part of the ambiguity continuum (represented diagramatically in the Appendix) are unbalanced in favour of the connotative aspect of a term. That is to say they require a great deal of interpretation to make sense and become applicable.

Definitions within the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum, however, are more readily applied. Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum, for example, states that the goal of digital literacy is:

“to teach and assess basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities."

Whilst potentially-ambiguous concepts such as ‘family,’ ‘community,’ and ‘everyday life’ are included in this definition, they are more concrete than the ‘citizens’ and ‘settings’ Erstad (2008) offers in his definition. Whilst his portmanteau term ‘Electracy’ from an earlier paper (Erstad 2003) did not gain significant traction, this was a less ambiguous term as it comprised “two ideas... connected only by being both relevant in the context” being “given in one word simultaneously” (Empson, 1930, p.102).

Within ‘Creative ambiguity’ the denotative and connotative elements of a term are more balanced. The definition is likely to depend upon attitudes and assumptions held by the majority of the members of a community towards particular concepts upon which it depends. Given the range of ways in which ‘digital literacy’ can be formulated - from basic computer skills to meta-level critical analysis and reflection - many definitions from 1997 to the present day have exhibited Creative ambiguity.

Despite the concept of the ‘digital native’ (2001) being younger than that of ‘digital literacy’ (1997) definitions of the former rather than the latter that are more likely to be found in dictionaries. The Collins English Dictionary, for example, defines a ‘digital native’ as “a person who has been familiar with information technology since childhood”. The strongly-denotative element in such definitions leaves less space for interpretation as, even when metaphors and similies are used, they are likely to be homely or well-used ones. This can be seen in many definitions of ‘digital literacy’ including that given by the European Commission. They stress the importance of using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in everyday life, going on to state:

“To participate and take advantage, citizens must be digitally literate - equipped with the skills to benefit from and anticipate in the Information Society. This includes both the ability to use new ICT tools and the media literacy skills to handle the flood of images, text and audiovisual content that constantly pour across the global networks.” (EC Thematic Portal)

Whilst ‘Information Society’ is itself an ambiguous term, it is made reference to so extensively in the news and policy documents so as to not require separate definition. In addition, the metaphors of a ‘flood’ and a ‘network’ are used so often that they provide cognitive shortcuts for the reader.


We have argued in this paper that definitions of ambiguous terms can be placed on a continuum of ambiguity informed by the work of Empson (1930), Robinson (1941) and Abbott (1997). Using ‘digital literacy’ as the main example, and the concept of the ‘digital native’ by way of contrast, we have illustrated the various ways in which such terms can be ambiguous. Dividing the ambiguity continuum into three parts (see Appendix) we identified Generative ambiguity as the part where definitions of terms including strongly-connotative elements reside. Those definitions of ambiguous terms more ‘balanced’ between the connotative and denotative elements we saw as fitting within the Creative ambiguity part of the continuum, whilst those with strongly-denotative elements fit within Productive ambiguity.

In passing, we mentioned Rorty’s idea of the ‘dead metaphor’ and suggested that definitions of ambiguous terms may tend, through constant reformulation and redefinition, towards Productive ambiguity. We suggest that further work is required to see whether ‘digital literacy’ follows what may be described as a trajectory similar to that of ‘digital natives’. We also suggest that the model of the continuum of ambiguity may be applicable to other ambiguous terms.

Finally, we note with Empson that ambiguity is itself an ambiguous term:

“Ambiguity itself can mean an indecision as to what you mean, an intention to mean several things, a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant [or] the fact that a statement has several meanings.” (1930, p.5-6)

Whilst we have sought to make this paper as unambiguous as possible and situate it in the Productive ambiguity part of the continuum, we do not wish to make the reductio ad absurdum claim that all terms are necessarily ambiguous. Ambiguity may surround us in everyday life but an understanding of the continuum we suggest may make the world a little more understandable.