Today’s Inside Higher Ed‘s article “Technologically Illiterate Students” begins:

Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate’s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called “I Pee My Pants When I’m Drunk.” What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas — though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else — something that might be more relevant to the student’s qualifications.

“What it tells me,” Zvacek said, “is that the student is technologically illiterate.”

The piece then goes on to offer  Zvacek’s definition of technological literacy:

“The digital divide used to be about the hardware haves and have-nots,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is that it’s less about who has hardware, but who has access to information; who has those problem-solving skills. And that’s going to be the digital divide that we’re going to see in the future … the ability to deal with information.”

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

On the one hand, I want to stand back and suggest that the issue raised in the anecdote isn’t about technological awareness but rhetorical awareness, about the construction of the self. And it is. At the same time, however, Zvacek is getting at something else. Zvacek is responding to the US Department of Education’s definition of technological literacy as knowing how to use a computer, and in doing so, she’s not alone.1

I want to push this issue farther though, push it beyond the concepts of computer literacy or technological literacy. In fact, I want to push us beyond the use of the word literacy itself for a whole host of reasons, first and foremost because literacy is, technically, about letters, about the written word, and that positions the issue squarely in a particular techno-cultural-noetic milieu.2

I was fumbling with this very subject when I wrote about technological literacy in The Making of a Technorhetorician: A Technological Literacy Collage, which I wrote earlier this year as an example for students working on their own technological literacy collages. I’m unhappy with what I wrote there, unhappy, in fact, as I was writing it. The problem, I’ve realized, is that I fell into the trap I try to push students away from. I let the imperiousness of literacy muddle my thinking3 The issue, I so fumblingly hinted at in my technological literacy collage is not literacy of any sort but awareness rooted in orality-literacy studies and media ecology. Its the kind of awareness that Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong spent their careers trying to teach us.

As long as we keep rooting this issue in particular techno-cultural-noetic contexts, we’re going to keep fumbling along, never to get it right. The awareness I’m talking about here, and the awareness I think Susan Zvacek is getting at without realizing it, is rooted in an awareness of McLuhan’s dictum/maxim “The medium is the massage,” that “[a]ll media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”4 That is,  McLuhan’s awareness of how media work as environments:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a working knowledge of the way media work as environments. (26)

It can be hard, at first, to convince students that you’re actually talking about something relevant to their lives when you jump around from such topics as the difference between alphabets, syllabaries, and logograms; renaissance perspectivism and railroads; Homeric myth and encyclopedias; Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Absurdest theater, and the Fluxus Movement; John Cage and Charlotte Moorman, the TV-bra wearing cellist and performance artist. As McLuhan knew, you’ve got to pull the rug out from under their (our) feet before we can get beneath the surface and understand the deep structures. As I’ve pointed out here and elsewhere from time to time, focusing on surface, making the mistake of being too rooted in a particular techno-cultural-noetic perspective, leads us to focus on the wrong things. My go-to example here is the belief that oral poets must be illiterate. Early scholars of oral tradition too quickly jumped to this conclusion that oral poets must be illiterate because the oral poets they studied were illiterate, even while there was evidence to the contrary, and it mistaken notion was perpetuated for far too long.5 As Ong argued, writing is imperious. It clouds our perspective. We are so rooted in literacy and in print culture that we far too often fail to realize it’s not our natural noetic state or that it’s not inherently better than other noetic states. This is the reason why we use literacy as the metaphor for everything, and in doing so, we fail to recognize that when we think we’re talking about literacy we are sometimes actually talking about awareness of media as environments.

Ultimately, this is why I keep teaching The Medium is the Massage, why I keep returning to it semester after semester even as I resist becoming one of those teachers who always teaches the same thing semester after semester. A year ago, a student told me our university president walked by, saw the student reading The Medium is the Massage, and said, “People still teach that?” Fortunately, this particular student had gotten McLuhan’s message by that time and she was grooving on it big time. She had come to understand McLuhan’s message and its relevance to her 21st-century life. I keep teaching McLuhan because it is relevant to all our 21st-century lives and it will be relevant to the lives of our 30th-century ancestors.

Hmmm…Timothy Leary came up with the dictum “turn on, tune in, drop out” at McLuhan’s urging. (( In Fashbacks, Leary laments that people misinterpreted this as meaning “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity” rather than asking them to alter their consciousness so to live better.) In that spirit, let me offer a new dictum, one to keep in mind when we think we’re talking about literacy: Peal back, delve deep, be aware.

  1. For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, let me suggest Cindy Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention; Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives from the United States, and Stewart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age as three good starting points. []
  2. See, for instance, Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “Blinded By the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy for a Metaphor for Everything Else?” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. []
  3. If you’re really curious as to what I mean by this, see Walter J. Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” (The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 23-50; Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 4: Additional Studies and Essays 1947-1996. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999. 143-168.). []
  4. The Medium is the Massage, 26. []
  5. Scholars of oral tradition, including such people as Albert Lord who was one of scholars who first promoted the error, have also worked to correct this perception. For a good, introductory text on this subject, see John Miles Foley’s How to Read an Oral Poem. []