Analogue Literacies (2011)

ABSTRACT: The continuous co-evolution of digital technologies and the skills needed to use them makes the concept of ‘digital literacy’ a slippery and moving target. Tools in themselves do not technologies make: it is the combination of phenomena, tools and purposes which, in a never ending and always accelerating dance, constantly shift what Stuart Kauffman calls the ‘adjacent possible’ to enable new and unforeseeable trajectories, both good and bad. Traditional literacies are based on an assumption that skills are transferrable and capable of improvement in incremental steps, that we can become experts in their application. Digital competencies, on the other hand, may (with some limited exceptions) become outmoded, unnecessary and defunct, sometimes in weeks or months rather than years, as the pace of technological change moves the goalposts as soon as we reach them. Often, a new generation of digital technologies will render our hard-earned skills redundant almost as soon as we have attained them, meanwhile opening out new vistas of adjacent possibilities that demand the acquisition of new competencies. The so-called ‘digital generation’ is no less immune to this effect than older generations, as witnessed by their enthusiastic but unreflective tendencies to embrace social media without regard to the consequences of persistent digital identity and emerging norms of privacy and public disclosure. In this paper I argue for a different way of thinking about digital literacy that is based on a richer understanding of technologies, following W. Brain Arthur, as assemblies of other technologies, both soft and hard, human and machine. I suggest that the need for literacy should not be focused on the hard, digital media but on the soft, malleable edges of the adjacent possible that each new technological/social/human assembly provides. 

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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