Response to Dobson & Willinsky’s “Digital Literacy”

Teresa Dobson and John Willinsky’s “Digital Literacy” article offers a thorough historical overview of the realities and challenges of the written word in a digital landscape, but falls short in fully analysing some of the important changes in this evolving environment. The very fact that these ideas are presented as a static PDF chapter of a more traditional book unfortunately frames the authors as perhaps not having an incredibly high level of engagement with this changing landscape.  This is a field that is changing so rapidly that it is almost impossible to accurately document, but this work does serve as a good starting point in further discussion.

In discussing the evolution of digital literacy and various technologies, the authors make note of several affordances that these new mediums allow.  One such example, the ability to easily revise and edit a text, should be central to any discussion of digital literacies, as this new ability has transformed the written process.  Authors are now able to write more impulsively, and do not need to give careful consideration to each word before it is ‘written’.  Dobson and Willinsky see this as largely a net benefit, and most would agree, however some question should be made of what this means for the creative process.  It is entirely possible that many authors now create works more hastily, and without giving as great a thought to overall progression of a work.  The ability to easily cut and paste ideas means that a work may not necessarily represent a progression of ideas as they naturally occurred, but rather may be a reflection of several rounds of editing and revision.

Dobson and Willinsky do make note of this change in the writing process somewhat when they discuss a loss of immediacy in written work, but they also acknowledge that it is not entirely clear how word processing as changed the way we write.  It is unfortunate that the authors do not delve into greater detail in this area, as it is likely that a great many changes have occurred to the writing process as a result of the widespread adoption of word processing.  The reality that touch typing is now an assumed skill in many implies that word processing has greatly expanded the pool of potential authors (whether of creative or of more practical works), and the very idea of using a standardized roman alphabet keyboard has likely also meant a great deal of change on the writing landscape, and indeed on language in general.

Dobson and Willinsky’s analysis excels in its discussion of the notion of hypermedia, and the authors do an excellent job of summarizing the historical growth of this concept.  They make particular note of the non-linear nature of this type of text, which is key to understanding how it has changed the written word.  Unfortunately though, the rapidly evolving landscape of digital technologies has meant that much of the work cited by Dobson and Willinsky is now dated to the point of possible irrelevancy, as it does not encapsulate the current media-rich and highly social environment where a great deal of writing now occurs.  The authors allude to this in their discussion of literary hypermedia, as they note that this is area represents a minority, but rapidly changing and evolving segment of digital text.

The authors note, quite rightly, that the words that we read on a screen are created as binary strings of code that can be easily created, modified, and viewed digitally.  This is rather irrelevant though, as the digital written word that is now common to our experience is never intended to be viewed in this raw coded form, and this digital transformation is now so completely automated that really no knowledge of this code is necessary of either the writer or reader of digital words.  Making note of this point is similar to implying that traditional type-written texts should be considered as constructs of this mechanical process of inked keys pounding on paper.  While this is the physical reality of these creations, it does not hold relevant or necessary to consider when examining a written work.

Dobson and Willinsky’s article serves as a good summary of the historical progression of digital literacies, but it should be viewed only through that lens.  To discuss the realities and implications of today’s digital landscape requires one to keep up with an online environment that appears to change almost overnight, and so it is likely that we will only have a full understanding of this reality in hindsight.  The irony that these authors chose to present their ideas in a traditional and static format that is reminiscent of a pre-digital world should not be lost on the reader.  Discussing statistics from 2003 may have some use in helping us to understand where we are coming from, but in a digital landscape that changes with each tap of an iPad, it is becoming increasingly difficult to effectively assess our current situation.

Dobson, T. & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. In Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from
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