Reflections: The New Literacy

The Trouble with Physics

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“You may be a PhD but you are illiterate!”

In 1981, Rob my painter friend, shocked me with the opening statement. I would have come across to him as one of those arrogant MBA types. He tested me with a few simple questions and proved to me that I am visually illiterate. Later on I came to know that I am illiterate in many other modes too.

Post Wall Street, he would have framed the question differently.

“You may be a Wharton (or some such) MBA, but you are illiterate”

“What were those questions?”
“Making them public would destroy the mystique that I have created around my IP, intellectual property/poverty, depending on the positions we take. I have sent a whisper note. If you don’t grasp it you may be illiterate on some other scale.

I have learnt the hard way that people should not be unsettled from their comfort zones. It might do them good but spoil my reputation. So I play the diplomat but diplomacy came after many hard knocks, over three decades.

“But I am a PhD”

I met Dr. Nazki in 1976. We reconnected on FB some years back.

He is a black swan, a retired professor of veterinary science; but not tired, yes a PhD but better and more widely known for his literary pursuits. I believe poets and painters are literate in a far different way. In an earlier era they would prefer to be in Paris than in the company of the likes of me. Dr. Nazki was the first multimodal person I met. Thanks to him I was already prepared in some way to learn from the shocker from Rob.

Thanks to social media, I can continue in my well (need not go to Paris where I would be even more illiterate) and yet remain  in touch at a distance without being a victim of the porcupine logic.

Most learning happens at the edges.

Farmers and fishermen are insulated from each other by different versions of literacy. There is a perception of stability on land but very little on the high seas. Fisherwomen are not that insulated as men. When the mobile phones came on the scene the illiterate fishermen were ahead of their literate agent in getting them.  Vasco da Gama was more literate than Columbus. He reached where he wanted to go.

Literacy has to be judged against the outcomes.

Edges go beyond the geographic. There exist a divide between the biologist and the physicist as with the farmer and the fisherman, poets and painters and the fictional average goose. Newton continues to influence the metaphors and paradigms of the literate (read, my doc) much more than Einstein or Darwin. The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin) or Cosmology is that the proponents are illiterate about BiologyPhysics is more in fashion than Biology. Both perhaps are illiterate about the lens with which we see the world. We are not talking about seer scientists like Einstein who come closer to poets and painters who see differently and are more in alignment with their deeper selves.

Literacy in a traditional sense is the ability to manipulate symbols and make sense, in other words, read, write and think critically.  I wish it had been read , write and reflect.  Literacy is often equated with modernity and culture. In the beginning was the word and now that we are nearing the end of the word as we knew it, will we turn out to be more literate in the non-traditional sense of the term.  The printing press and the East India Company,  are often perceived as landmarks to beginning of the ‘modern age’. The oral traditions which relied on memory gave in to technology and to those who could leverage technology. The digital frees up much more memory and opens up space for creative endeavor which could also lead to a void open to be filled up by digital noise in no time.

Closed is even better than open at times !

What is the literacy that we are talking about?  I was delighted to see the issues discussed in a classic academic sense by Carey Jewett of the London Knowledge Lab, in Multimodality and Literacy in School Classrooms. I shared the link with the tribe but there were no takers. Contagiousness is king, rather than content. I would have learnt something if I had some feedback and my experiment in community learning and participatory writing would have paid off or else this too would vanish in the cloud. For my  tired senior eyes the article was not multimodal. I played Hitler for a while and forced my children and a few members of the tribe to take a serious note of the article.  They appreciated it but I had to face questions as to why academic writing cannot be simpler sans the mystique. But for my tryst with illiteracy about livelihood security among the top of the pyramid I would not have played Hitler.

Meanwhile Carey writes to us. So kind of her. Participatory is working. Sankar mails and examines some related issues in his post, The slow life. . Aby and Sarah comment. This version of the post owes a lot to them

What we already know is the blinder to further knowledge? The belief that we are conscious is the worst barrier to our consciousness.

What if there are faster more efficient and effective ways of direct knowing addressing multiple triggers simultaneously?

In a world that visually unfolds in real time, how long can plain linear static text compete with much higher bandwidths?

“If you are a champion of the text, you would do well to migrate to Indian Universities where they lament about employability where the very same people who create the problem are entrusted with the responsibility of solving the issue. The digital divide results in no small measure from the preference to viewing than manipulating text. If both sides appear to be morons to each other, do not be surprised.”

There is more to the argument that the more literate we are in the traditional sense, the less literate we are from a developmental perspective.

The new literacy is about making sense and meaning of the world around us, physical or virtual; reduce the complexity of cues, symbols and noise which facilitates navigation rather than wandering around without purpose or speeding up without knowing where we are heading.

Sankar sends me the link on slowing down, The joy of quiet Pico Iyer. Amitabh shares the same on FB. We have a conversation as to why we should or not slow down. As if by synchronicity I receive a mail from aphoristic cocktail.

Nature never hurries, yet all is accomplished.”Lau Tzu 

Nature is over designed to be perfect.

We work (?)  by default, not by design. Rahul asks what is your default setting? We are the only species which comes with the default setting to fail, self-destruct. To be literate is to realize this.

When the pace is too fast one fails to see what happens around us. it is all a blur. Slowng down has no intrinsic value unless the slow down helps us to see what happens around us.

The farmer is slow but the fishermen cannot afford to be slow.Not all farmers see and not all fishermen are fast enough.

There are craftsmen writers and scientists for whom writing/science is a career and seer scientists like Einstein who thought about relativity for 10 years and special theory of relativity for another 10 years. The attention span of the career scientist could be limited by the next paper to be pushed out if he has to stay in circulation.

Read The Trouble with Physics for more and better.

We have mastered navigating the physical world. The maps are near perfect though the means could be improved. The virtual remains to be mastered where noise and the ability to make noise rules.   Captain Sparrow with the broken compass is an apt metaphor of our times.Even Pirates have their code. “The code wins arguments”. Silence is restored. Managers are yet to develop one.

Adult education is a mockery of education and proof that the long years of ‘educating ourselves’ in schools and universities don’t turn us into ADULTs, teach us to self-manage instead of mass produce a new version of slavery which certainly appeals to reincarnate Hitlers !

Next: Deciphering the literacy code.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections: The New Literacy

  1. Pingback: Reflections: Deciphering the literacy code, the life hackers | First Discipline

  2. Pingback: Meta: The post on posts | First Discipline

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