By: Domenic Rosati (MLIS Candidate 2017)
Dan Russell’s Information Management public lecture Mindtools: What Does it Mean to be Literate in the Age of Google? was a challenge to common place notions of literacy in an information society heavily dependent on Google and other web services. He offered two alternative concepts that can help us understand what being literate could mean today: Informacy, the operational ability to use contemporary literacy technologies, and Metaliteracy, the ability to learn how to learn literacy technologies.
In order to understand the significance of Informacy, Russell asked us to think about about what it means to be literate. Using the example of reading music, Russell showed that literacy is tied into the ability to operate the technology associated with that literacy. He also mentioned that in the 18th century being literate would have meant knowing how to make a quill and ink. Russell’s point, following Walter Ong’s studies of the transformative effects of writing, is that “Literacy is a technology based system.” Informacy extends the notion of literacy to recognize this technical aspect of literacy. Russell argues that understanding literacy as Informacy is important because new literacy technologies are allowing us to search more than ever before, becoming more ubiquitous, and changing at a rapid rate. Reading and writing will not be enough for getting around in contemporary society; we will need to understand how to operate the tools we depend on to read and write.
Russell has seen the need for modifying our definitions of literacy in his work in researching user search experience at Google. His lecture provided us with many examples for his case. First, he mentioned a searcher tasked with finding activities in San Fransisco on a Saturday night. The example was humorous because the searcher began to search for ‘adult activities.’ Russell asked if the searcher was illiterate. While the searcher could read and write, Russell was making the point that not knowing the connotations of certain search conventions was a serious impediment to this searcher finding information. Russell went to on to cite ‘ctrl-f’, spoof sites, internet language and visual conventions of the web as examples where a user must have the knowledge of how these technologies operate in order to use them appropriately and garner information.
Instead of suggesting we get to work implementing technical literacy strategies about how to operate specific tools due to Informacy, Russell explains the need for a second concept: Metaliteracy. By way of statistics about youtube alone, Russell shows how we could never keep up with the amount of information added to the web. Less obvious is that we can also never keep up with the rate at which web sites and applications will change. Metaliteracy is learning how to deal with these changes and additions of content by always asking what is possible with the technology at hand, or learning “what changes and how.” One of the examples of this is his test put to 250 engineers to find a 1977 overhead picture of a certain address. They all failed to look in google earth under the image archive feature. His explanation for this is that the engineers were not looking out for what was possible. Russell also mentioned his son searching for a song using “oh oh oh oh oh song” as a query. Russell thought this would certainly fail and so he rejected the possibility that google could mine millions of QA posts with similar queries and match it with a correct answer. This possibility turned out to work and Russell’s son found the song. A more concrete example of Metaliteracy Russell gives is the grey arrow that expands information in google. He told us if a searcher ignored this button they could think that South Africa only has 6 official languages when it has more. Russell said that an important part of literacy is learning how to pay attention to these technical changes in websites and that Metaliteracy is that process.
His summary suggested that today’s literacy is captured by four, not three, R’s:
The fourth one, research, is added because Informacy and Metaliteracy are about knowing how to search and find information to read and write about within the framework of contemporary literacy technologies of the web. Without this research component, our reading and writing is not functional. That is, our reading and writing would not operate where information flows.
Both Russell and an audience member agreed that there is a clear distinction between capital-R research and research. Russell notes that we need to move beyond the look and find culture that has pervaded the web into a search and analyze culture. One instance mentioned was the idea of understanding web site credibility as a component of Informacy. As we understand internet genres and visual cues, we can have a better sense of what is credible on the internet. In addition to this, Russell briefly touched on the ability use Google Fusion with data sets found on the internet to get answers from data yourself.
With all of these examples in mind, Russell makes a pretty good case for having a modified understanding of literacy to include both awareness of the technologies that underpin literacy and the processes by which we learn how to learn these technologies. Informacy and Metaliteracy are certainly useful concepts to keep in mind when the technologies and standards you are using today are going to be changed tomorrow and these concepts can help us take hold of current trends that want us as students not to focus on specific software or tools but on the processes that underlay the operation of those tools.
Listen to an audio recording of the full lecture here.