Literacy, Letteracy, and Google

When reading the chapter “Yearners and Schoolers” from Papert‘s The Children’s Machine, I was fascinated by his discussion of how digital media has transformed how we define literacy.  After reading his description of “literacy” versus “letteracy,” or the ability “to decode black marks on white paper,” I was interested to see how literacy is “officially” defined today.  I started simply, with Merriam-Webster, where “literate” was defined as

(a) educated, cultured;
(b) able to read and write.

These two definitions did not satisfy me — they are two very different things — which is it?  So I checked with Wikipedia, which sent me to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizatoin (UNESCO). In one publication, UNESCO proposes an operational definition of literacy, which encompasses much more than just “letteracy”:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy
involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop
their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider

Papert goes on to describe a hypothetical “Knowledge Machine” that revolutionizes the way (pre-letterate) children learn — by interaction with a database of knowledge through “speech, touch, or gestures.”  According to the book, this will allow children to

become highly literate independent of their progress toward letteracy.

Pause and reflect on that.  Whoa.

Since the publication of this book in 1993, substantial progress has been made toward creating an actual “Knowledge Machine.”  When first reading the concept, I was reminded of a recent ad from Google (particularly at 0:39):

The girl in the ad is showing some serious “development of knowledge and potential,” as well as understanding, interpreting, creating, etc.  Literacy without letteracy?

We have a Galaxy Note II at our house, so, inspired by the girl from the ad and Jennifer from the book, we asked it:  “Google, how do giraffes sleep?”  On the front page of results, we saw some of the same images of curled up giraffes that we showed in class . . .

Have you also thought about how these new technologies can change the definition of literacy?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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