The New-New Literacy

Happy New Year! I’m not going to do a top ten or predict (ala Karnak or Kreskin) the future. Instead if that ripe old adage is true, I’m going to look back to look ahead.

We’ve all heard about digital literacy, and how it’s going to be important going forward from here on out. George Siemens has published a couple of blog posts that I wanted to comment on, and I think that it might be a bit more coherent to do so here. George wrote a little bit about the Pirate Hoax and it’s implications for what digital literacy means. I think his commentary is dead on, in that people must adopt a very skeptical approach to what they read (even here!). A problem with a skeptical approach is that it can lead to a very silo’d way of thinking, where anything that is outside your particular view can easily be dismissed by finding minor problems with the data or information, or holding information to such a high standard to meet that it never climbs the mountain, so to speak. Skepticism must be tempered with an openness, a willing to suspend belief for a period of time to accept an alternative point of view.

George then writes about the New York Times Visualization Lab, and their adoption of more visualizations. While this isn’t new, (all the news that’s fit to visualize?) we’ve been hearing about declining text literacy for years, the contextual arguments about visualizations certainly exist. Is there a difference in a pie chart versus a bar chart? How far apart are the variables spaced? Colors of pie pieces influence funding? Most people don’t consider how these factors influence or can influence decisions. The new new literacy has to include this sort of thinking, and understanding of how we can be manipulated by visuals.

Two of my favourite sites Flowing Data and Infosthetics deal with this sort of visual literacy, in addition to highlighting the creative, artistic sides to data. If you haven’t visited either site, please take a gander at them, they are really spectacular.