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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow New Frontiers in Technological Literacy: Breaking with the Past


Albeit an ancient concept, literacy was nonetheless a nineteenth-century achievement born of illiteracy. “Illiteracy” antedated “literacy” by at least two centuries, with the latter coming into use as a derivative in the 1870s. “The quality or state of being literate,” as literacy is first defined in the OED in 1908, through the end of the nineteenth century meant that one was “learned,” “lettered,” or “instructed in learning.” Being literate (littcratus) was a pretext and meant one was prepared for learning. In Canada and the United States at the closing decades of the nineteenth century, census enumerators and immigration officials documented illiteracy rates by asking respondents “can you read?” and “can you write?” Literacy often merely meant an ability to write one’s name or answering “yes” to these questions. Through the turn of the century, controversial laws in states such as Massachusetts required a potential voter to demonstrate competency by reading aloud short constitutional passages (50-100 words) to show that “he is neither prompted nor reciting from memory” and to copy a portion of the passage (10 words). For the most part, literacy came to mean that one could “read aloud intelligibly,” eventually qualified as “read intelligently” and “write legibly.” For instance, by the early 1920s, educators and psychometricians such as William McCall and Edward Thorndike had developed for New York state officials “functional silent reading” and “functional writing” tests to measure a respondent’s “ability to express clear enough to be understood” “answers to certain questions upon the material being read” or copied (versus “oral reading of rare legal phraseology” and an “ability to copy a few words”). Legal challenges were brought against the new test, suggesting that it discriminated by measuring intelligence instead of literacy or innate instead of learned abilities. Charges included that literacy meant “a higher degree of education,” but the high court ruled that it meant functional reading and writing abilities. Through the early twentieth century, like intelligence, literacy otherwise absorbed a much wider range of abilities, facilities, and faculties.5

Literacy was coextensive with behaviorism’s provisional repudiation of phrenology, faculty psychology, and introspection, or, in effect, “the mind.” Beliefs that “the mind is regarded as a machine of which the different faculties are parts,” Thorndike reported in 1923, “have now disappeared from expert writings on psychology.” He often referred to “the mind” in quotes, rejecting “magical effects,” functions, and structures that educators and philosophers attributed to the organ. By the late 1920s, the following conclusion was common: “The mind is not a bundle of faculties, and also not a bundle of functions or, indeed, a bundle of anything—but rather a unitary psychic organism.” More than anyone, including Bacon and Locke, Immanuel Kant established the mind as an aggregate of faculties, fundamentally reason (vernunft), understanding (verstand), and judgment (urteilsk- raft). He also joined these Aristotelian senses of animal, intellectual, and moral faculties with that of a faculty (facultas) as an art or branch of learning. In The Conflict of the Faculties, these senses are used nearly interchangeably. Somewhat ironically, Kant’s elaboration underwrote materialist philosophy of mind from the 1780s, but trends turned toward physiological psychology. Around 1800, Franz J. Gall established craniology, renamed phrenology by his student Gaspar Spurzheim, as a science of mind identifying external cranial traces of internal cerebral faculties. Misguided by drawing discrete, practical terminations on the skull and brain, by the mid-1830s phrenology had mapped the mind into 35 distinct affective (propensities and sentiments) and intellectual (perceptive and reflective) faculties that could be cultivated. Like the soul chariot, the latter could be trained to control the prior; higher faculties could control the lower and therein separate the civilized from uncivilized, cultured from uncultured (humanity from animality, child from adult, etc.). Some protopsychologists at the time, such as Johann Herbart in 1816, rejected suggestions that faculties were innate and described them as a “hypothetical assumption”: attempts to describe their “mutual influence in all their combinations” were “useless.” Immensely popular in Britain and the United States, educators nevertheless gravitated to most features of the new psychology, which in the early 1840s expanded to 78 faculties, the basis of which developed differentially from child to adult minds.6

The constructiveness faculty was termed the mechanical faculty in 1648. In “Archimedes or Mechanical Powers,” John Wilkins describes six mechanical faculties (balance, lever, wheel, pulley, wedge, screw) as if they are material, metaphoric, and metaphysical, like primordial, simple machines. “Books are not the only essentials,” Francis Bacon wrote in The Advancement; machines and “instruments are required.” Drawing from this tradition, phrenologists defined the constructiveness faculty in 1848 as “the making instinct and talent:” “manual dexterity in using tools; ingenuity; sleight of hand in constructing things, and turning off work, or whatever is done with the hands; disposition and ability to tinker, mend, fix up, make, build, manufacture, employ machinery and the like . . . Every human being uses it.” Constructiveness was classified as a propensity, along with amativeness, combativeness, destructiveness, and secretiveness, actions that could be cultivated, indulged, or suppressed. As Herbart acknowledged, without control or restraint, constructiveness could manifest as an “organic excitation” or “disturbing element.” Necessarily so, Maria Edgeworth advised in Practical Education in

1855, “parents are anxious that children should be conversant with Mechanics and with what are called the Mechanic Powers.” Anxieties about constructiveness persisted, with schools of manual training, industrial art, and industrial education and institutes of technology first established and endowed in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century.7 Manual training was defined with the exercise of faculties directly in mind as “training in thought-expression by other means than gesture and verbal language, in such a carefully graded course of study as shall also provide adequate training for the judgment and the executive faculty.” Specialists drew from philosophers sympathetic to constructiveness, such as Pestalozzi and Froebel, as Calvin Woodward, founder of manual training in the United States, put it in 1884: “Watch the magic influence of a diet of things prescribed by the former in the place of words, and a little various practice in doing, in the place of talking, under the direction of the latter.” Likewise, G. Stanley Hall, no fan of a discredited faculty psychology, reflected on the moral of the findings of his empirical child study: “Hence the need of objects and the danger of books and word cram.” “Technological literacy” has roots in the constructiveness faculty, “mechanical intelligence,” and in what the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education popularized in 1906 as “industrial intelligence,” meaning “mental power to see beyond the task which occupies the hands for the moment to the operations which have proceeded and to those which will follow it—power to take in the whole process, knowledge of materials, ideas of cost, ideas of organization, business sense, and a conscience which recognizes obligations.” Given modern machineries, schools were “too exclusively literary in their spirit, scope and methods.”8

In one way, by the 1930s, the “old psychology” was discredited, but in another, the “new psychology” took up abilities, aptitudes, competencies, functions, intelligences, and literacies as nearly interchangeable with faculties. Certainly, functional psychology was accused of paraphrasing faculty psychology. The new dynamic psychiatry reinscribed drives, energies, forces, instincts, and mechanisms with alternate meanings. For example, midnineteenth-century assessments of constructiveness or the mechanical faculty became tests of mechanical ability and interest, or mechanical intelligence. The deployment of “industrial intelligence” was astute and part and parcel of an increase of intelligences in face of the waning currency of faculties. Educators and psychologists debated the existence and fragmentation of various intelligences versus a single, unitary “general intelligence.” Thorndike had popularized multiple forms of intelligence in a 1920 Harper’s Monthly article: there are “three intelligences,” he confirmed, “which we may call mechanical intelligence, social intelligence, and abstract intelligence.” Literacy, or specifically handwriting, had been reduced to dexterity, or “motor impulses,” and an index of mechanical intelligence and machineries. Questions of how, what, or why conditions, functions, proclivities, and processes were “naturally innate” persisted. Hence intelligences had long fragmented into multiple types by the time Michael Youngblood conceived of “multiple intelligence” in 1979, which was subsequently exploited in Howard Gardner’s Frames of

Mind in 1983. Literacies increased, beginning with “functional literacy” and then “economic literacy,” coined in midst of the Great Depression. Ostensibly to counter the functional and respond to the great critique of the 1930s, “critical literacy” followed and was defined in 1943. “Scientific literacy” and “technical literacy” were coined in 1954; “media literacy” and “technological literacy” soon followed in 1961 and 1962. Technological literacy was productively fleshed out in the early 1970s through the Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project (ECCP) and an accompanying high school textbook titled The Man-Made World.9

Along with the singular “literacy,” analysts began to routinely use the plural “literacies” by the mid-1970s. It was common to speak, in addition to those mentioned, of cultural, ecological, environmental, financial, social, and visual literacies. Literacies had long multiplied by the time “multiple literacies” was coined by Patrick Hartwell in 1985 and subsequently exploited by the New London Group in 1996. Nowadays, cyberliteracies, digital literacies, e-literacies, Information and Communication Technology and technoliteracies smoothly roll off the tongue along with about eighty other literacies.10 Constructiveness is redistributed among a range of these old and new literacies. One does not need a special subliteracy to realize that each addition of a “new literacy,” wherein the “new” has referred to a technological literacy since 1978, adds to a precarious edifice that in the conglomerate amounts to a new symbolic head.11 The language faculty meant an ability to express our ideas verbally, and to use words that will best express our meaning; memory of words. It is now quite convenient to proclaim that the “virtual world is text” and go about our way, with business as usual so to speak, in cyberspace and game space. Indeed, game literacies, gaming literacies, and video-game literacies seemingly offer a new frontier, albeit back to the future, of literacies. Some archetypical literacies as established in literature include aboriginal, aesthetic, adult, business, cultural, electronic, financial, moral, pedagogical, scientific, theological and workplace, to name but a few.

Linguists and theorists rationalized the saturation and discovered a range of metaphors that hinted at reasons behind new literacies. For instance, in 1984, Sylvia Scribner tried to explain the trend: “Maximal literacy may begin for some through the feeder routes of a wide variety of specific literacies.” At the base of “motivations for literacy,” for Scribner, were three key metaphors (“literacy as adaptation, literacy as power, and literacy as a state of grace”). Whether metaphoric, or material, or both, others rediscovered that literacy was a commodity, medium, place, tool, technology, and a way of being. For the most part, there was discomfort in finding commodification and literacy as technology.12 More than anyone, Walter Ong historically documented the materiality and metaphoricity of relations between the two, compressing common reactions into logic:

Many would have it that the technologizing of culture also poses problems for

professionalism. Technology implies machines. Machines are inhuman. Professionalism is human. And never the twain shall meet. Most such thinking is based on a specious paradigm: a machine is taken to be an imitation organism—an animal that didn’t quite make it. It thereupon triggers fear and resentment, for the machine obviously lacks the qualities that an organism should have: life, adaptability, moods and responsiveness to moods (which even many infrahuman animals clearly exhibit), adaptability to unpredicted change, and so on.

Resolving that literature is a machine, and acknowledging its machinic properties, was easier than accepting that literacy is a machine (e.g., for producing literacies). For example, a major theorist of the new criticism exclaimed in 1924 that “a book is a machine to think with,” while William Carlos Williams introduced The Wedge in 1944 by asserting that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” In the 1950s, Jacques Lacan extended insights of psychoanalysts on machines to symbolic systems. “The most complicated machines,” he found, “are made only of words . . . The symbolic world is the world of the machine.” Putting materiality to what he dubbed “hypermedia” and “hypertext” in 1965, Ted Nelson later outlined a comprehensive plan for designing “literary machines.” These types of resolutions helped Deleuze and Guattari draw the material, metaphoric, and metaphysical from the “machine of expression” that Kafka used. Literacies and machineries overlap and differ, just as literature and machines are indistinct and analogical. Language and literacies are not exclusive to humans, and machineries are not limited to machines.13

Although La Mettrie boldly concluded that “man is a machine,” he did not specify what type of machine. Once machines are given residual or “incipient vitality” and become metabolic, and once cultural and machinic evolution are coextensive with biological evolution, the types of machines that humans become necessarily change over time. After cybernetics in the 1940s, homo communicans became machina processus; speech became signal processing; reading became character recognition, information storage, and retrieval; and writing became word processing. In “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Claude Shannon described the increasing indifference of machineries to literacies: frequently, “messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” A few years later, in 1950, Norbert Wiener clarified the indifference, explaining that “society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it . . . messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine . . . To me, personally, the fact that the signal [or communication] in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal.” Cyberneticians had cut the literary critics’ critiques off at the pass: machines were getting good at “making the right noises for particular combinations of letters,” and it does not matter whether or not they “understand what those noises mean.” Librarians quickly yielded by accepting that “the ‘information’ in information theory is not the kind of information we mean when we talk of an ‘informed’ person.” Literacies came face to interface with machineries. Recognizing implications, Marshall McLuhan exclaimed in 1962 that we “live in an electric or postliterate time” but nonetheless went on to say that “nothing could be more subversive of the Marxian dialectic than the idea that linguistic media shape social development, as much as do the means of production.” Working from Marx’s premise that “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist,” McLuhan reasoned that “antithetic periods, the Gutenberg and the Marconi or electronic,” give you different literacies. The Gutenberg galaxy gives you “phonetic literacy,” while the Marconi galaxy gives you “the new literacy,” he insisted for years on end. Just as one could be machinic regardless of the literacies, one could be literate regardless of the machineries (analogical, new, digital, etc.).14

The world wants symbol systems and words—to make things exist, manifest magic, signify things, complement machineries, or at least incite discourse—but through semantic expansion or slippage, “literacies” are wont to overwrite nearly every discursive practice of machineries. Derrida’s famous declaration that “there is nothing outside the text” offers a convenient medium through which literacies propagate and saturate and through which literate machineries seem subjugated and subdued. He nonetheless tried to moderate deconstruction’s finding that the “world is text” by noting, “It was never our wish to extend the reassuring notion of the text to a whole extratextual realm and to transform the world into a library by doing away with all boundaries.” But this moderation was difficult or impossible given his definition of text as “a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.” “Language contains its own inner principle of proliferation,” cautions Michel Foucault.15

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