This was originally posted on Medium
“How’d you know my name?” – Everyone who’s forgotten about their name tag
Visual literacy is the blanket term for the ability to understand all forms of communication, be it written, spoken, graphical, or even non-verbal. The ability to use any form of communication gives us access to a world of knowledge and information. The literate control the gateways to information, which in turn influence our perception and ideas about the world around us.
Today, gross misunderstanding surrounding the nature of media and the resignation of our private lives are creating chasms in our society and deepening new forms of illiteracies. To explain, let’s start with a field trip to the fifteenth century.
“Knowledge is Power” – Sir Francis Bacon
The Rise of Reading Literacy
Almost six hundred years ago, the world was turned upside down when one great idea disrupted the establishment. Before Gutenberg’s printing press, the feudal aristocracy used the religious doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church to retain their power. Bibles were for the wealthy and, like masses, were in Latin. Access to the wealth of knowledge contained in the Bible was subject to translation from a chosen few , namely the leaders of the Church and elite members of the European nobility who could read it. That was until Johannes’s invention sparked a printing revolution.
The mass production of the Bible contributed to a large-scale translation from Latin into common languages, which led to variants of interpretation. Followers of the Church were no longer slaves to information asymmetry and suddenly were aware that Jesus was a simple man who rejected wealth. Threatened by the tides of change, the Church did the most obvious thing – made the printing and possession of unauthorized prints a crime. It was too late. The printing revolution was under way and the mass production of the written word brought forth the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning the Renaissance. The Church was now waging a multi-front war against the democratization of its holy scripture and the ever-growing field of science and the divinity of Kings was being called into question.
“All men by nature desire to know.” – Aristotle
Save The Twinkie, Take My Privacy
As of 2011, eighty-four percent of adults in the world could read and write. The printed word transformed from pulp and ink to a cathode ray tube and then to light emanating diodes and e-ink. The act of reading also evolved, moving from the bounded book to newsprint, from glossy magazine pages to the phone in your pocket. In that time, the world got richer during the Golden Age of Capitalism. With money flowing from one corner of the globe and back, the advent of multimedia advertising began to inch a little closer into our private lives until one day … we decided to give them away. Without notice, our identities became a commodity to use in the marketplace. Fill out this form with your name, home address, and telephone number and you could win a fancy car or your dream home!
As information storage shifted from physical media to binary code in the postliterate world, signing away our identity was a click away. And we’re getting a bargain too! Companies no longer gave out coupons or promises of an all-expenses-paid vacation in exchange for viewing a timeshare property, now they let us use their products and services for free. All they need is our email address, name, date of birth, location, mother’s maiden name, list of friends, and our whereabouts by the hour.
I’ve met an overwhelming amount of people who believe their favorite social network, email service or blog is free. Even those aware of the transaction feel the price is fair. I mean, why not? Afterall, we get to keep in touch with friends, express our opinions in the comment field, and rally to bring the Twinkie back from death row – all on our mobile phone or tablet (while sitting on the loo). Yet, a lot of us are alarmingly unaware that every tweet, check-in, or photo of the hors d’oeuvres we’re devouring is another transaction exchanging privacy for #SundayFunday – each bit of shared life sent to a server farm to be laundered into cold hard cash. The inability to see this is digital illiteracy and if we can’t see the transaction, it’s almost certain we won’t be able to read the receipt. It might as well be in Greek … or Latin … or more likely, binary code.
Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” – John Kenneth Galbraith
The New Illiteracies
It’s one thing to not understand we’ve been handing over our private lives to corporations, but the lack of awareness surrounding how this information is used to influence our perception and shape our ideas has led to a pandemic in media illiteracy.
Last year Google alone made a cool forty-three billion dollars, ninety percent of their revenue, from selling our information to advertisers and businesses in the form of demographic profiles. Do you know your demographic profile? Are you a Beltway Boomer or part of the Winner’s Circle in the Elite Suburbs? Maybe you’re a Young Digitari who lives in a trendy apartment and loves drinking microbrews. This is who we’ve become – an aggregate of our likes and retweets.
The first chapter of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War explains that the commander who considers all factors and calculates the chances of victory is likely to win. Or as Rage Against the Machine so eloquently put it, “Know your enemy.” The war for our attention has become lopsided.
We’ve empowered corporations and advertisers to craft an ungodly accurate message and find the most opportune time and place to say it. Our digital biometric … our digital fingerprint .. has also allowed industry conglomerates to craft the perfect product, meaning if you’re not into Budweiser they can trick you into thinking you support craft brews with Shock Top. Media conglomerates have added to our illusion of choice. Six companies control ninety percent of what we read, watch, or listen to. The media illiterate, whether they’re aware of this or not, see their overflowing choices in media as something that’s been awarded to them in the digital age. Indeed, mass media claims to satisfy individual needs but in order to sell highly-specialized ad space. Cha-ching! The case in point is how one media conglomerate operating thousands of media outlets around the world can shape our entertainment … and our news.
“WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” – the Party, from George Orwell’s 1984
Inside The Corpocracy
In the capitalistic society, we mock the dwindling list of communist governments in the world and their state-run media networks; yet, the illusion of choice doesn’t free us from propaganda. Despite our instincts to seek knowledge in pursuit of truth, we hate being wrong.
We hate being wrong so much that we’ll blatantly ignore information that disputes our beliefs. Continuing to satisfy our individual needs and armed with our demographic profiles, twenty-four-hour news networks shifted their emphasis from basic news reporting to opinion-oriented programs that could analyze the clutter and confirm our bias. Depending on your segment, they know whether to remind us that guns are evil or that the president is going door-to-door, personally, to rip them from our hands. It didn’t help that these shows were indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill news show, from the “breaking news” set to the luxurious and dapper news correspondents.
It bears repeating: The literate control the gateways to information, which in turn influence our perception and ideas about the world around us. Traditional literacy and the internet have permanently kept us out of the Middle Ages, but the busy pace of life in the twenty-first century causes us to rely on the media to make sense of our oversaturated, hyper-connected world. This transformation in our media consumption reveals itself to be all too familiar, resembling the days when the nobility and the Church were the middle men.
The new illiteracies have created a monster of the general public. Due to our tendency to seek the confirmation bias, we’ve become overconfident and polarized. I read it on the internet and it aligns with my beliefs, so it must be true. Void of healthy skepticism towards media and recognition that our personal data has been used to manipulate us it’s easy to understand how a politician can leave one thinking, “Wow, it was like he really knows what it’s like to be me.”
Despite all of this, I remain an optimist (for better or worse). People like Frank Baker and organizations like UNESCO are advocating and fostering media literacy in education. The digital natives, those who have grown up with the internet their whole lives, will be armed with their twenty-first century skills that could level the playing field of digital literacy the same way Johannes did so long ago.
What do you think?