Show and Tell: Thursday, December 13th, 2007

This week's Show & Tell will present a collaborative answer to the questions: "What is literacy?" "How does it emerge and evolve?"

The goal is to expand our understanding of literacy beyond common definitions and generate discussions that both challenge and explore what it means to be literate.


mark_outhwaite's picture

Show + Tell Content _ 12-13-2007_Defining Literacy

Show + Tell Content _ 12-13-2007_Defining Literacy

• What is literacy ?
• Neurophysiological Bases of Literacy
• Literacy empowers ( enables access participation expression and influence)
• Literacy disempowers: Dominant forms of literacy can enact the obstruction of others – Our symbol systems are contstrained by the need for semantic specificity– the necessity of operating within the accepted parameters of a given epistemology. It is assumed here that the practices of classification and categorization one encounters and is obliged to abide by can act to limit one’s access to and participation within a given domain expression, influence or discourse.
• The Literacy Paradox: Language enables us to think conceptually, but limits what we may think.
• Humanity’s "answering machine": Literacy is the means in which human beings “write themselves into the world” (and beyond.)

1. What is literacy:
Literacy is the manipulation of symbols, however, given that there has been observed a dynamic of direct variantion between literacy and self-empowerment in developed economies, (i.e. heightened literacy increases the range of oppportunities and control that one individual may exercise over their own circumstance as well as that of others) this definition should be extended as follows; Critical Literacy is the mastery of language and logic to such a degree as is sufficient that for an individual communicating via the medium of language, he or she is able to effect a desired influence on others.

According to this extended definition, critical literacy may be considered as the efficacious apprehension of false reasoning, second and third order effects of communication in the public domain (how messages reinforce popular sentiment regarding a particular issue) and the disambiguation of messages whose intent is to preserve, shape or delimit established norms of human behaviour.

“She’s good at reading people’s emotions.”

2. Neurophysiological Bases of Literacy

Literacy (insofar as it pertains to language specifically) is also the means by which human beings “write themselves into the world.” (N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman- Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics)

A person may be said to achieve functional literacy if and when he or she were to surpass a certain threshold of mastery in terms of the ability they have cultivated within themselves to recognize whether or not the effects of their communication make manifest in others a desired influence or change in behaviour.

Friederich Kittler wrote in Discourse Networks about the means by which the neuro-cognitive functions of phonics served to provide a simulation space in which the act of reading gives rise to a kind of mental hallucination. In Katherine Hayles’ discussion of Kittler’s theories, she identifies his observation that, with the introduction during the nineteenth century of phonic methods for teaching children how to read, the performance of words by audible utterance (reading out loud) resulted in both the stabilization and consistency of performance characteristics inherent to the patterning of the reader’s ‘inner monologue.’ Words and texts were first learned by sounding them out, after which the internalization of the performance was achieved and the mental simulation facilitated by vocalized reading was persistent thereafter, discernable to cognition but occurring at the sub-vocal level.

Adapted from ‘Socialpedia: Connectivity in the Future of Media,’
Nov. 2006, Mark Outhwaite

3. Literacy Empowers: The way that literacy may be seen to emerge or evolve is potentially coupled with the patterns of development of which one partakes in terms of how a person builds within themselves functional and critical literacies. Literacy therefore emerges and evolves as a function of the frequency and degree of sophistication according to which one applies their literacy in various domains.

Literacy emerges and evolves through one’s developmental approach towards surpassing the aforementioned target of bringing about a desired change in the behaviour of others. You’re either good at “getting it” or your not, though the latest neuroscience would tell us that the degree to which we develop the capability of “getting it” is largely borne of our lifestyle choices and basic determination. Norman Doige postulates in a recent article featured in Vogue Magazine, that the more difficult it seems that “getting it” becomes, the more we are exercising disused cognitive pathways. Determination thusly shapes the degree of difficulty we should experience in mastering a difficult task through the course of repeated attempts. If this concept extends to different forms of literacy, perhaps the difficulty one experiences in parsing ‘difficult’ texts is an indicator of learning manifesting as organic changes within brain structure.

If it can be said that the emergence of literacy within one individual is proportional to the frequency of success with which he or she is able to exercise a more powerful agency over information, media or communications, then the evolution of literacy is eviced also in the degree to which this individually-enacted agency imparts a desirable effect on the cultural propagation and variance of literacy in general. One case of this evolution having occurred was with the rise of books for personal consumpution in Europe and beyond during the age of enlightenment.

Literacy involves the habitude of “thinking and feeling of one’s way through a rioting cloud of humanity, accumulating and distributing the pollen of ideas that in the past hundred and fifty years or so have caused this cloud to grow in volume and density.”

-The New Knowledge, Wikibiblio Project Research Document
prepared by Mark Outhwaite, July 2007

4. Literacy dis-empowers: Dominant forms of literacy can enact the obstruction of others - How Literacy Disempowers: Humberto Maturana, a cyberneticist who tackled the treatment of cognition as a biological phenomenon, wrestled also with the development of the language needed into order to express the following premise of his and Franciso Varela’s theory of Autopoiesis, which holds that the ‘reality’ that an organism experiences via perception is a self-enclosed phenomenon. It is therefore impossible for science to maintain that it is the only empirically-sound means of observing an ‘objective’ reality, for the observed fact that “everthing said is said by an observor.” – Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living

“A living organization is a circular organization which secures the production and maintenance of the components specifying it in such a manner that the products of their functioning are the vary same organization that produces them.”

Katherine Hayles discusses at length how in spite of the robust scientific literacy that Maturana commanded, he was essentially “pulling himself up by the bootstraps” in attempting to foment a language-based articulation of cognition as a biological phenomenon.

This past two weeks, various discourses have been emerging in the heated environs of the Bali climate conference, many of which indicate the extent to which literacy will continue to shape the human experience, through the political structures, language and systemic censure of scientific facticity largely acknowledged by global consensus. Critical Literacy will contribute to the cultivation within ourselves of critical self-awareness (as in ‘what am I doing with my life…’) and conscientiousness of our responsibility to others, if such a sense of social justice is still acknowledged, and to be sure, in many institutions, businesses and organizations it is. Literacy manifests in individuals the refinement of mind and agency, which is also the only conceivable means by which we should ideally allow ourselves to be governed. If by our not being totally cognizant of our complicity in ‘not getting it,’ will this engender a circumstance in which we consistently neglect to practice literacy that is effective and adequate? Will illiteracy in various critical domains reinforce the imperceptibility of subtle turns of language that facilitate subterfuge of the basic precepts of morality and ethics? An excerpt from the Globe and Mail this past week demonstrates how language has once again illuminated the boundaries beyond which it is unlikely for discourse to advance. Participants in the Bali conference on climate change don’t yet agree on a consensus definition of morality and ethics…

“ "We want Canada to show some ethical resolve, some appreciation that countries who have become fabulously wealthy from industrialization haven't really had to pay a cent for what they've already dumped into the atmosphere," says Joy Kennedy of the United Church of Canada, a signatory of the KAIROS letter. "It's a moral issue. It's about what's fair, what's right and wrong."

“However, with both sides of the green debate claiming the moral high ground, it's hard to tell who really belongs there. What exactly is "right and wrong" in this context? What does "fair" mean?”

“In fact, while politicians and the eco-warriors who oppose them share a language tinged with moral fervour - appealing to a shared responsibility for collective crisis, to Canadians' innate sense of justice - what no one seems to agree on is the definition of basic moral concepts. Which leaves environmental players in an ethical stand-off.”

“From 1950 to 2000, Canadians used 707 tons of greenhouse gas per person - or about 44 times as much as the average Indian. And today we are emitting about 19 tons per person while countries such as China hover around the four-ton mark.

“But the IPCC has concluded that to avoid catastrophic climate change, a safe level of per-capita emissions would amount to about two tons for every individual on Earth. The only just scenario then, activists such as Ms. Narain argue, is for Canada to massively reduce its emissions.”

excerpted from:

The Globe and Mail, December 8, 2007


5. Literacy Paradox - Coded Environments:

If literacy empowers inasmuch as it disempowers via rigid cultural strictures
and credentialling practices by which its exercise may be utilized by individuals, perhaps the dominant modes of literacy will necessarily lead to a crippling form of literacy, and if so, how might this paradox be played out in our contemporary political and economic discourse environments?

Thomas Homer-Dixon has discussed the threat posed to the survival of humanity due to the sheer complexity of the distributed cognitive systems that sustain nearly anyone living in the developed world. Homer-Dixon describes this lack of control over the systems that sustains us as the “ingenuity gap.” This heightening complexity is corroborated also in an essay by Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute entitled COMPLEXITY RISING: FROM HUMAN BEINGS TO HUMAN CIVILIZATION, A COMPLEXITY PROFILE.
In this essay, Bar-Yam analyzes human organizations from the perspective of their complexity profile, and concludes that due to contemporary industrial civilization’s being driven by competition between human organization, humanity has experienced an uncoupling of its parts, and in the midst of this uncoupling, the complexity of life as we experience it has and will continue to increase;

“the complexity of the environmental demands must be less than the complexity of the system behavior for organisms that are likely to survive. The environment of human organizations is partially composed of other human organizations. Through competition an increase in the complexity of one organization leads to an increase in the complexity of the environment of other organizations. This suggests that over time the complexity of organizations increase until the collective behavior becomes more complex than the behavior of an individual human being.”

source: source:

This doesn’t necessarily presage an end of (complex) civilization, but more of a retooling of the ‘extensions of man,’ maybe reining in our reach a bit and biting off only as much as we as a species are able to chew.

• Literacy also reflects the Complexity of Internal Perceptual Organization

One’s interpretation of what entails literacy also extends to describing the limits beyond which it is unlikely that the actions of any single human agent will produce a desired influence or change in the behaviour of a distributed cognitive system. Systems whose operations are are simply too vast or complex to be controlled by a single individual pose problems of inestimable complexity to a single individual in terms of the limits of their cognitive capacity to shape their behaviours, understand them as per a gestalt, or predict the effects of their control over that system. Control in such systems is typically distributed, rather than hierarchical.

Examples include

• networked software and hardware systems contolling the paths of transit taken by product throughout global shipping and transportation systems (logistics)

• Air Traffic Control Systems

• Nuclear Plants and Electricity Distribution Systems

• Video Game Development and Production, Coding and Debugging of Computer Operating Systems

• Global efforts by geneticists to decode plant and animal genomes

• Distributed Supercomputing to assist in sequencing of proteomics
(Sony and IBM adapted idle Cell processors in Sony PS3 consoles so that individual computer resources might assist in performing some of the calculations required.)

6. Humanity’s "answering machine": Literacy is also the means in which human beings “write themselves into the world” (Hayles, 1999) and beyond.

As a closing metaphor: In this seemingly portentious age in which climate disruption is a presage to the extinction of many of the complex forms of life on earth, can we envision the Voyager spacecraft messages as an answering machine recording of voices of the dead planet?

Carl Sagan: Murmurs of Earth

Aboard the nuclear powered Voyager I and II spacecraft were included a “golden record,” created with small metal plates composed of gold-plated copper. Onto these plates etchings were made of analogue recordings of video and audio of earth-bound phenomena represented as analogue dot-dash-dot etchings representing binary code. Depicted in the analogue etchings were the human greeting of “hello” in fifty-five different languages of human culture.

Each record includes a cartridge with pictorial instructions as to how it is to be played. It will be 40,000 years before either of these spacecraft make a close approach to any other planetary system.

The spacecraft are now on a path to pass through an uncharted region of space where the influence of the sun’s solar radiation encounters the extreme low density of interstellar space. Another ten years will pass before these craft pass into interstellar space.

Human cultures having long since mastered the reading of stars, are by now well along on their way to writing themselves into the stars.
We should only hope that our descendants are around long enough to receive a reply.

information resources:
Solar system warped, Voyager 2 finds
ALICIA CHANG, The Associated Press, December 11, 2007

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

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