Digital Literacy: Interaction as Language

In my last post I posed a question –

If we use the example of traditional literacy, reading/writing, it is inseparably paired with language – so what accompanies digital literacy?

Doug Belshaw wrote a great response to that post and it’s prompted me to ponder that concept a little more. Doug explains that literacy is not a simple concept and that

The best we can hope for with new ‘literacies’ (and we’re using that in a metaphorical way) is to define forms of literacy in particular context. In other words, a community comes together to decide what constitutes literate practices within their given domain. This can be done through consensus or through authority.

My emphasis is there because that process (or the lack thereof) is what spurned my initial questions. There’s been rapid adoption of the term Digital Literacy, but for such a difficult concept there hasn’t been much discussion at a local level. I think that reason for that is that there’s little, if any, clarity on how to discuss it. We can define practices and outcomes, which is really important, but there’s something missing because nothing links these things together. What is at the heart of this idea? Something foundational with which to discuss digital literacy is missing – a vocabulary, a taxonomy, a framework, a standard – and without it there’s nothing to support a frank and open discussion and provide some boundaries to work within.

What’s the thread that allows us to discuss and contextualise traditional literacy? Language.

So I went back to that original post and that question popped out again at me. I asked myself how does that relationship between language and literacy work? The thing that started to emerge was a concept gleaned from the experience of reading James Gleick’s The Information about abstraction of information and the transition from oral to written communication. To this degree literacy gave us a way of discussing the translation of information from a physical and oral tradition, into the codified and symbolic system of written text. It’s a bit of a leap, a bit hazy and very much a raw idea which needs far more context put around it, but that book has had a profound impact on the way I see the world and changed the way I think about these kinds of issues.

So with that in my mind I decided to shift the question – What are we trying to encode in our digital environment that’s similar to the way that text functions for oral language? What is distinct and different from text? In the haze of a slightly insomniac stupor what came to me was interaction.

In the same way that we pair literacy with language – what if digital literacy was paired with interaction?

We use “literacy” in a sense to understand the abstraction of an oral language into a visual set of symbols. Literacy is then seen as being the development of skills to understand, construct, interpret and invent the conventions of this symbolic abstraction.

If we then use “digital literacy” in the same way it can be seen as a way to understand the abstraction of interaction into an entirely constructed and virtual environment. Digital literacy becomes the vehicle for which we can discuss translating real world interactions that are based on our physical and analogue selves.

What connects these two ideas of literacy is abstraction – changing the way something is represented beyond the constraints of the physical. That’s the connection here between what the written and read text does to our oral and physical language and what a digital environment does to our physical ability to interact with our world and each other. Both are abstractions that enable us to go beyond the physical and temporal constraints of the physical world. They both allow us as people and as disembodied ideas to connect, exchange, teach and learn in ways that are unimaginable when trapped by the physical constraints of the body and our environment. Both forms of literacy can perhaps be measured by how successful we are in untethering ourselves from the physical world and transport, connect, communicate, share and engage with those ideas, concepts and processes in ways we cannot physically manipulate.

As Doug points out ‘digital literacies’, the plural, might be a better way of thinking, and in this case if we think of Interaction we are not discussing an interaction – we need to talk about interactions, the plural. By mapping out the different types of interaction that digital technology allows what was missing in the conversation is starting to appear. What is beginning to emerge is a way to discuss digital literacies in a meaningful way so that we can work towards that process of defining it in our context.

Interaction as Language

So just quickly I put together this list to map out some of the interactions that digital technology facilitates and enables:

  • Human > Hardware – Translation of analogue input to digital signals
  • Human > Human – Interaction between people mediated by a digital space
  • Human > Computer interface – The symbolic and metaphorical taxonomy
  • Human > Software – The applications we use as tools to create and modify digital objects
  • Human > Data – The manipulation, modification and storage digital objects
  • Data > Program – Data is manipulated and transformed programmatically through logic and rules
  • Program > Program – Programmatic passing of data to simulate intelligence
  • Computer > Computer – Methods for hardware, software and applications to have dialogue

From this list you can see how we can map out our local and individual domains of digital literacy – like the ability to use hardware and software. It’s also possible to see how you can frame Doug’s Essential Elements of Digital Literacies as forms of interaction and ways of understanding them.

So why do this?

Well put simply – it’s to try to bring some clarity to a complex concept. Steve Schaffer’s comment on the original post perfectly articulates the confusion around digital literacy. He also articulates the concept of digital literacy as the ability for people to “transact their existence” in a digital environment – which to me is through those outlined interaction. My proposal isn’t an attempt to define digital literacies within a context – but move away from the current position where they’re conflated with a vast range of other “literacies” – reading, writing, information, media, web etc. – and give them space and method to be defined in their own way. While digital literacy can touch each of these areas it makes starts to make sense when you see it through the lens of interaction. Interaction is how and why things occur and are performed in a certain way and it begins to differentiates digital literacy, while at the same time providing a common thread and theme with which to discuss and frame it.

What I’ve put forward might not resonate, but the act of putting it out there is at least an attempt to define something by way of consensus-building. This is really just the kernel of an idea, it’s still embryonic and something that needs more work and more thought – but I feel there’s something to it. I might not have been able to express or articulate it well enough just yet – but I’m willing to stick it out there for people to comment, dismiss or ridicule 🙂 Just the process of writing this post has been helpful in clarifying the concept in my own mind and a picture is starting to form. Like a photo in the darkroom, the paper is in the developer and only the shapes and contrasts are there to see at the moment, I’m still a little way from having anything close to the full picture.


Thanks to Doug for the reply to the original post! It greatly clarified some specific areas for me and spurned me to rethink the proposition and angle I was coming from.

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