I once walked into a McDonald’s in a low income, working class neighbourhood and was stunned to see that the menu board was completely devoid of words—it was all photographs and numbers to order by. It made me wonder if this was a new trend in literacy—were we moving away from text towards imagery?—or was this an intentional strategy on behalf of the management to address the perception that most of their customers lacked basic literacy? They’ve since switched back to a regular sign filled with words, but it certainly threw me for a loop that day.
To say that literacy is dying would be misleading, for it is in a perpetual state of death and renewal as each new generation explores and reinvents it. Literacy and what it means to be literate is always changing. With each change in literacy, from orality to print to multimedia, arguably something is lost, gained, and/or transformed. I’m both excited and terrified for what the future of literacy holds. I love words, grammar, and physical books. I also love the new possibilities afforded by digital mediums and love to explore and push the boundaries with what’s possible. The thing is, I’m not sure that there’s anything really new going on except the speed at which information is disseminated, the ease at which it is possible to rip.mix.feed, and the democratization of voice. When I look at all the possibilities afforded by all the new tools, I see them for their constituent blocks: text, images, video, and audio. Every tool uses these pieces in some way and adds a fifth piece: the ability to connect socially around the first four. To that end, the content hasn’t changed in the last century, only the mediums. I don’t mean to downplay all the amazing tools online and the myriad possibilities to create and share. I love technology for the opportunities it gives my creative side to play. However, I still believe that content is king. Without substance, flashy tools are just flash.
All this reminds me of the countless abandoned blogs strewn across the Internet. When I started my first blog back in 2003, I was so excited. The trouble was that I had nothing exciting to write about. I didn’t want to keep an online diary. And so I stopped writing and my blog joined the Internet’s detritus. I’ve since learned that blogs are about writing and that blogging is about community. That is the connection that I have made. The spoken and written word both require an audience. The success of all the new technologies lie in their ability to connect people. The ability to create an amazing motion comic isn’t the point until it can be shared. An idea that is not shared has no value. And so as long as their is someone to share with, literacy will be just fine.