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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

'It Only Takes a Generation: Literacy in the Digital Age'
May 17, 2011 - 6:45am

Yesterday I met a wonderful group of people at Loyola in Baltimore at the invitation of my friend Luise Finn, CIO. The subject was literacy in the digital age. The talk is too long for a single post here, so I am going to post it as a serial. Here is the introduction. See you soon for more!


“It Takes Only a Generation:”


Information Literacy in the Digital Age




As a graduate student in history, I was a teaching assistant one semester for a course on Ancient Rome. The professor, much respected for his wisdom as well as his knowledge, one day remarked:


“You can’t believe how quickly it can all fall. It takes only a generation to end literacy.”


Wow. All that culture, effort, control over nature and people and nations and the land and minds, economic, social, political, religious, ideological categories of society collated, coordinated and codified into language and writing – its science, technology and art – gone in one generation for the failure of the last one to pass it down to the next.


But how true. We live steeped in words and communication and yottabytes of data, some of it allegedly knowledge, a more rarified set purported as wisdom. Because the Internet makes publishers of us all, a profusion of expression in so many media forms: text, images, video, delivered on cable and radio and smart phone applications and every form of device that connects to the Internet, itself a network of networks connecting, ultimately everyone to everything, overwhelms us. And it is all thought to be good.


Or at least that is the idea. Some of us worry about the reality. That reality begins with the recognition that throughout the course of history, human nature does not appear to have changed fundamentally. The Internet – the social, legal and economic, as well as the technical aspects of this phenomenon – can never be singularly “good” or “bad,” but will span the spectrum of human experience. To it we must bring the ethics, rules, norms, passion and compassion to temper the inevitable craziness, criminality, socio-pathology and evil that live among us.


We have something quite complex with which to deal: Human nature complicated enough to have stymied interpretation down through the ages and yet we see it transfigured by the phenomenon of the Internet. We throw our humanity onto its canvas. We have a perspective on ourselves that has been otherwise forgotten, repressed or taken for granted over time. Facebook and Twitter, BlogSpot and YouTube are ways we watch ourselves form communities and communicate, come into conflict and attempt to resolve it. It is a window through which we can watch ourselves.


Whole fields of study have emerged in information and library science, communications and computer interaction departments to study these experiences, perceptions and effects. Time does not allow us to follow all of these threads. Literacy, digital literacy, information competency and information fluency, media literacy – the similarities and distinctions among these terms to which I will return later – is our topic.


My concern is that literacy in our culture is at risk. Or at least a certain kind of literacy, one that is essential to the quality of society most of us believe in: reading and writing, critical thinking, incisive intelligence and verve grounded in civic discourse.



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