Digital Literacy: A Revolution Begins
By Richard Worzel, Futurist
Digital literacy is one of those phrases that we use without truly knowing its meaning. But before extending this concept into the future, I went to the past: what is the origin and original meaning of the word “literacy?” Well, literacy means “the quality of being literate,” and “literate” comes from the Latin, literatus, which my online dictionary tells me means “learned” or “scholarly.” Yet, words evolve in meaning over time, and what we mean when we say a student is “literate” is not particularly that they are scholarly, but more that they have facility relating to words and language that enable them to read, write, and communicate. Saying that a columnist or an adult is literate on the other hand, means something else, but for a student, literacy implies that the student is enabled or empowered. And I will take that as my text: that digital literacy in education means that the student is enabled or empowered by the ability to use digital media.
With this as a starting point, let’s deal with the obvious aspects of digital literacy. The Internet has provided us with history’s greatest library, in our homes, in our schools, and increasingly in our pockets and hands, with us all the time. And this availability has massively empowered all of us, students and non-students alike. It’s now hard to imagine a life without Google or Wikipedia, without being able to look up Joe Dimaggio’s batting average when we feel like it, or being able to get guidance from our peers about the best restaurant in Key West, or the best tour in Cozumel, or the atomic weight of sodium, or what number president is Barrack Obama, when the Mayan calendar runs out, or almost anything else we wish to know.
And the ability to use the technology that allows us to access these riches is a key aspect of digital literacy, just as understanding how a library works is a key aspect of traditional literacy. Accordingly, knowing how to use a desktop computer, a search engine, instant messaging, take a photo with your cellphone and email it to a friend, edit a video, and all the other wonderful things that come with the most rapid, most dramatic advance in human history, the digital revolution, is essential to digital literacy.
But all of this is the present. What of the future? To get a feeling for that, I’m going to go back to the roots of the previous revolution in literacy with the invention (in the West) of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.
Clearly words, writing, reading, and printing were around for centuries before Gutenberg’s invention, but movable type was revolutionary because of its economic impact. When books were difficult to produce, they were desperately expensive. As a result, there weren’t many around, and those that were, remained closely guarded and difficult to access. Movable type made books affordable and available to a much wider range of people. In turn, this made the ability to read—literacy—a skill worth having, which led to an explosion in literacy and to a more educated (and empowered) citizenry.
One of the best examples of this empowerment comes from the translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular in the 16th century, as it gave laypeople direct access to God’s word (in the Christian faith) without the intercession (and interpretation) of a priest. For this enabling of the masses, translators like William Tynsdale were condemned by church authorities. Indeed, in 1535, Tynsdale was tried for heresy and tortured to death for the heinous sin of taking this power from the church and giving it to the masses. There was a price for this literacy, though. Some educators of the 15th century decried the spread of printing, and thus of writing. They worried that people would become lazy and write things down rather than memorizing them. In the process, they would lose their trained memories, which had been the medium of transmission throughout history up until that time. In this, these educators were absolutely right: today many of us have a hard time remembering our phone numbers, let alone being able to recite the Illiad or the list of the begats of the Old Testament from memory. So we have lost a truly valuable mental ability when we chose to become literate.
How, then, will the digital revolution empower students (and the rest of us) in future? And what price will we pay for this empowerment?
To divine this revelation, let’s first consider what digital technology will be capable of in future. And let me say at this outset that whenever I, or anyone else, talks about the future, they are giving their opinions. The future hasn’t happened yet so there is no evidence that one person will be right and another wrong.
First, I believe that computers will be able to monitor our health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat, and quickly diagnose emerging problems, far earlier than we can today. They’ll then devise cures, treatments, and diagnoses that are far beyond what’s available today, curing most of the chronic, acute, and genetic illnesses that bedevil us today. We will live in a world surrounded by invisible intelligences, not all of it benevolent, that will watch what we do, what we like, how we behave, and use this knowledge to serve us, sell to us, manipulate us, and exploit us. Countering this, we will have computer companions, emerging from today’s smartphones, that will accompany us all the time, watch over us, protect us, do our bidding, and be our proxies in cyberspace with other computers, and other people. Computer intelligences will take on many of the characteristics of distinct entities, emulating aware beings, and acting with initiative and purpose. And we will live in a world where we encounter robots on an everyday and casual basis, most of which will be designed to fulfill a specific purpose, but some of which will be humanoid in appearance. And all of these advances will also provide tools that will enhance and enable our innate human talents and skills.
In a world such as I describe, what will digital literacy be like?
If the human brain is plastic enough, and I believe it is, we will be able to use the presentation of multiple images to stitch together a much broader view of the world, both immediately around us and at a distance. Much as Google Earth gives us a God-like view of some aspects of the world, this “God’s eyes” view will enable us to see through walls, around corners, and into distant lands whenever we wish. We may be able to apparently see inside our own bodies, and have problems illuminated and explained to us.
We will be able to communicate with each other by something that might be called “electronic telepathy” where concepts, messages, and ideas go from my mind to yours without being spoken aloud, or illustrated through physical media. We will be able to operate tools and equipment at a distance, merely by thinking. We will be able to convey thoughts and emotions to others, perhaps to large groups of others, in much the way that electronics can allow one person to sing to 50,000 in a stadium, or to millions through television.
We will have available to us “just-in-time” learning, where information is presented to us at the moment we need it, and in the form that is best suited to our unique way of understanding of it. We will be guided as to what skills to develop, and what bodies of knowledge in which to immerse ourselves by our computer companions, acting as tutors, possibly in cooperation with human tutors and guides, whom we today call “teachers.”
We will live half in the physical world, and half in cyberspace, with sensory perception in both worlds that will make each seem equally real, and equally important. We will become beings that earlier eras would have considered superhuman, based on what we can perceive and do.
And what price will we pay for these things? Well, first, traditional literacy will become less valuable and thus less widespread. Words have always been difficult things to master, and reading has always been an unnatural act, learned only through years of hard work and practice. When we can communicate using all senses through digital media, then words, books, and literacy will be relegated to a lesser status.
And technologically delivered superpowers imply the potential for super-villains, as the events of 9/11 amply demonstrated or extreme terrorist groups who have run effective online recruitments. Indeed, we may find that our very existence is threatened by those who use digital powers for ill.
But perhaps the greatest change is one that we may be overshadowed by our own digital creations. Whether a robot or computer intelligence can ever be truly aware or truly alive is a meaningless question when we can’t even prove that other people are truly aware or truly alive. But we know what we mean, and by any objective standard, we will witness the emergence of a new race of beings that do not have our biological limitations.
So, to come back down to Earth, let me ask a simple, deliberately provocative question: Are our schools preparing today’s students for this future, this empowerment, this digital literacy?
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist. He speaks to more than 20,000 business people a year, and offers to speak to high school students for free. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.