Reading, Writing + Communications

Five centuries ago (more or less, depending on when you actually read this), Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door. In the weeks, months and years that followed, one of the most influential publications of the Protestant Reformation was propagated across Europe.

Yet, in my opinion, perhaps the most influential contribution Martin Luther made to western civilization was something quite different. He laid the foundation for literacy in the western world.

Since Johannes Gutenburg had developed a printing press with movable type, the missing piece to a literate society was no longer simply a matter of the limited production of reading material. Luther recognized that in order for printing presses to improve the lives of people, people would need to acquire skills they had never needed before. Though he campaigned strongly for advances in literacy, and though he did help to start such advances, most of the great advances in literacy didn’t actually happen until several centuries later.

I feel as though I am also in a situation quite similar to Martin Luther’s situation. Whereas for Luther it was mainly about “reading literacy”, for me it is also about “writing literacy” and also “communicative literacy”. Writing ought to be self-explanatory. What I mean by “communicative literacy” is, I guess, something like knowing that when asking a friend to meet for coffee in half an hour, it may be best to use a telephone call, maybe to send an SMS / instant message, but that writing an email would probably be the wrong technology, and sending snail-mail or writing a book would be completely out of the question. All of these technologies involve both reading and writing, but only some of them are adequate to the task at hand.

Few people are aware that many technologies they use on a daily basis involve writing (and thereby data being recorded). When people press someone’s telephone number into a phone, they usually don’t consider that act to be writing per se. Likewise, most people consider the sound that comes out of a telephone speaker to be the other person’s actual voice rather than a reconstruction of the audio signal that was recorded via the other person’s telephone microphone. And yet again, when someone moves a computer’s cursor using a “mouse” , or when they click on a button or link online, most people do not consider such actions to be writing and/or recording data. Indeed, few people are even aware that a mouse is normally referred to as an “input device” (as is a keyboard).

Much in the same way that the vast majority of Europe’s population was illiterate during Luther’s times, today the vast majority of populations worldwide are by and large oblivious with respect to many “information and communications technology” (ICT). And even though I have already written a lot, all of this is probably still less than just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”.

Most people still don’t know the difference between “machine-readable” data and “non-machine-readable” data, most people still do not understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative data, and most people still even to this day cannot tell how to identify who is responsible for the content that gets published online.

Most adults in developed countries today learned some basic fundamentals in school about how the publishing industry in the world they were growing up in worked. In contrast, kids today learn very little about how publishing works in the world they are growing up in now. Ask any teenager whether the device they have in their pants is currently publishing anything online (or “via the Internet”), and most of them would probably just look baffled.

We can do better, and we must do better!

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