Open Thinkering


Why the European view of ‘digital literacy’ is ambiguous.

In the 1930s, William Empson came up with seven types of ambiguity. He applied them to poetry and literary criticism, but I believe they can be more applied more widely. Roughly, they are:

  1. Word or grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one.
  3. Two ideas, relevant because of the context, are resolved into one.
  4. Two more more meanings do not agree, but make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. Author discovers idea in the act of writing.
  6. Statement says nothing (e.g. tautology) so reader has to make up meaning.
  7. Two meanings of the word or phrase are opposite within the context (shows division in writer’s mind)

I’ve long thought the concept of ‘digital literacy’ was an ambiguous one, and am beginning to look in which ways definitions of it are so. Although I’m still in the early stages of my analysis, it’s becoming clear that the view of ‘digital literacy’ held by official bodies in Europe is ambiguous in a very particular kind of way.

Take the following quotations, for example:

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) affect our lives every day – from interacting with our governments to working from home, from keeping in touch with our friends to accessing healthcare and education.

To participate and take advantage, citizens must be digitally literate – equipped with the skills to benefit from and participate 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.

European Commission (Digital Literacy: Skills for the Information Society)

Digital literacy is a process that affects at least four dimensions:

  • Operational: The ability to use computers and communication technologies.
  • Semiotic: The ability to use all the languages that converge in the new multimedia universe.
  • Cultural: A new intellectual environment for the Information Society.
  • Civic: A new repertoire of rights and duties relating to the new technological context.

In this sense, digital literacy today is similar to what UNESCO has defined for some time as “media education”. According to this organisation, media education “enables people to gain understanding of the communication media used in their society and the way they operate and to acquire skills in using these media to communicate with others”. To accept the similarity, we only need to acknowledge the evident fact that practically all media today are based on the use of digital technologies.

José Manuel Pérez Tornero* – Digital Literacy and Media Education: an Emerging Need

I believe these to be examples of the second type of ambiguity. That is to say that they involve a situation where ‘two or more meanings are resolved into one.’ Specifically, they combine media literacy with technical (and procedural) skills to form some kind of quasi-umbrella term that leans towards the third kind of ambiguity.

These kind of definitions of ‘digital literacy’ are common within the official literature of the European Commission and related bodies. Digital literacy becomes a hybrid notion that appears to have legitimacy because of the relatively straightforward notion that each word connotes. It is not clear, however, that forming the two words into a phrase results in anything meaningful.

Interestingly, Empson hints that ambiguity may be a three-dimensional process and that the seven types of ambiguity he identifies lie on a continuum. I think there’s definite scope for some visualization in my thesis… 😀

* ‘Advisor of the eLearning programme in the field of digital literacy, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, European Commission’

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