Escaping the Boundaries

John Miedema, my colleague and future debating opponent (Saturday, February 4 at the OLA SuperConference 2012; join us), is at it again: “Stories have endings: The boundedness of literacy is what makes it useful in the real world.”

We’ve been nattering back and forth in our blogs about our upcoming debate. Now John says he has taken the gloves off. Here comes his good stuff. Really?

I fully understand that it is hard to accept the eventual demise of visible language. I also accept that we are anxious about the emergence of machine intelligence.

However, the complexities of the world drove us to create visible language (the alphabet) because of the failure of human memory to encompass and comprehend the emerging cornucopia of information and ideas.

The boundaries of memory were a limitation not a virtue. And yet John says:

“Books have binding and covers, a finite number of pages. Stories have endings. The boundedness of literacy is what makes it useful in the real world.”

As with memory, the boundaries of literacy are a limitation not a virtue. This is something that David Weinberger notes in his recent insight into epistemology in the networked age, Too Big To Know:

“Our new knowledge does not consist of a careful set of works that have passed through a series of narrow gates. We thought that knowledge was scarce, when it fact it was just that our shelves were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

“In this world of abundance, knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests. It is not eternally truthful content but subject matter good enough for our current task. It is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.”

Of course, Weinberger is still thinking about this from a literate perspective. The “infrastructure of connection” is still alphabetic within its technological skin.

Apparently John thinks debating me in a room full of librarians is going to be a slam dunk. After all he says “placing boundaries on information is what libraries are good at: classification, indexing, location.” Sure, maybe. In 1910. Or perhaps even in 2010. But this is where we have been, not where we are going (or need to go). The librarians I know don’t define themselves by their buildings, information containers, or catalogues; they are grounded by values that inform an attitude towards ideas and human potential. Librarians, despite our dour image in the popular media, have always been subversive. Breaking boundaries is our professional credo.

John lauds “slowness, boundaries, location, fixity” as exemplary traits of libraries and literacy, but these are not the characteristics of ideas, information or knowledge. What we know about the physiology of information tells us that cognition is a fluid soup of connections and re-connections. As Joseph LeDoux notes in The Synaptic Self “You are your synapses. They are who you are.”

Now there’s some fertile ground to explore as we think about post literacy. More later.

…Mike

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6 Responses to Escaping the Boundaries

  1. John says:

    “The librarians I know don’t define themselves by their buildings, information containers, or catalogues; they are grounded by values that inform an attitude towards ideas and human potential. Librarians, despite our dour image in the popular media, have always been subversive. Breaking boundaries is our professional credo.”

    Nice, I like that. But “Here comes his good stuff. Really?” No, not yet, just getting warmed up. In my next post, I will talk about openness (not unboundedness) and visions of libraries in the future.

    Do libraries exist in your future, post-literate vision?

  2. Mike Ridley says:

    “Do libraries exist in your future, post-literate vision?”

    My honest answer right now is: I don’t know. The question of the future of the information artifact in a post literate world is still one I’m wrestling with (see, full disclosure!). If libraries do exist, the word will be a verb not a noun.

    …Mike

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  4. Great debate! I’m interested in what both of you think about what many of us in K-12 ed rather clunkily call multiple literacies or transliteracy. Your debate focused on words – oral, written, pills – Alphabet, Alphabet 2.o and “pharmaceuticals”. But there have always been other ways of communicating and of understanding – music, images – and the need for “visual literacy” in particular is being amplified by technology. Are our brains evolving as these literacies become more critical? Is this the beginning of post-literacy? Or am I on another planet?

  5. Mike Ridley says:

    Thanks for coming to the debate. John did a great job and the audience was wonderful.

    Agree re multiple literacies or transliteracy. At the debate we (I) took a bit of an extreme position to highlight things. However, what is really happening in a less dramatic way is the redefinition of what literacy means. Other literacies have always been important; now they are becoming hyperliteracies. We have favoured alphabetic literacy in recent times.

    …Mike

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