Tag Archives: literacy

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

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Thought Streams about Online Literacy

Interestingly enough, in the last several days, at least five unrelated items of online content have made me think about what I’d call “online literacy.” Not too surprising a co-occurrence, given the feeds I follow, but I think still interesting. Especially because different perspectives were behind these items and the ways I was led to them.

Here are the five items I most directly connect with my streams of thought about online literacy, during the past few days.

Several items in my streams of thoughts on online literacy have found their way into a Moodle Lounge thread where they were mostly connected with the future of textbooks.

My notion of “online literacy” might be idiosyncratic. The concept, to me, relates to “media literacy” which (as far as I can tell) refers to the efficient use of a set of conceptual tools meant to help in approaching media items from the perspective of critical thinking and intellectual engagement. “Online literacy” would be the same thing applied to the Internet in general. One element specific to online literacy, I would argue, is that some basic principles of the Internet (including its decentralized character) make the critical/engaged approach very prominent. Simply put, the way the ‘Net is set up almost forces people to apply critical thinking to what they read, view, watch, or listen to, online. In something of a “cool medium” sense, the ‘Net also encourages active engagement in the material (though for reasons different from McLuhan’s description of medium coolness).

Furthermore, I tend to associate “book literacy” with modernity while “online literacy” seems quite compatible with orality which is itself typical of both post- and pre-modernity. I’m guessing this last point seems exceedingly weird to a number of people, but it really seems to fit in a larger scheme.

There are ways to discuss these issues which are more tech-friendly or geeky. Synchronous communication, many-to-many relationships, peer-to-peer (file) sharing, distributed processing… But as I think out loud, these concepts are mostly in the background.

My basic claim in all of this is that, regardless of how positive we think the move toward online content and away from mass-produced books, it’s important to train ourselves (and others) to gain a level of savviness in the online world. This form of online literacy is especially important with students because of their active engagement in the construction of knowledge.


Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.