Richard Lanham: Digital Literacy


"Computer Greek" by Rod Davis - an interview with Richard Lanham

For more information about Richard Lanham, see

The word “literacy,” meaning the ability to read and write, has gradually extended its grasp in the digital age until it has come to mean the ability to understand information, however it is presented. Increasingly, information is being presented in a new way: instead of printing black letters on a white page, this new format combines word-recording (old-fashioned “literacy”) with sound-recording and image-recording into a rich and volatile mixture. The ingredients of this mixture, which has come to be called multimedia, are not new but the mixture is.

New, too, is the mixture’s intrinsic volatility. Print fixes utterance and this fixity confers authority and sometimes even timeless immortality; that is why we value it, want to get things down in “black and white,” write a sonnet “more lasting than bronze.” The multimedia signal puts utterance back into time. The reader can change it, reformat and rescale it, practice transforms on image, sound, and word. And yet, at the end of these elegant variations, the original can be summoned back with a keystroke. Print literacy aimed to fix information. Multimedia literacy allows us to unfix it, to revise and vary in the foreground, always with the timeless original on background call. It couples fixity and novelty, original and variation, in a fertile oscillation.

The laws of proverbial wisdom are thus defied. In a digital universe, you can eat your cake and have it too, keep your original and digest it on your own terms. And, since digital code is infinitely replicable without material cost, you can give your cake away as well. Printed books created the modern idea of “intellectual property” because they were fixed in form and difficult to replicate. You could therefore sell and own them, and the livelihoods of printer and author could be sustained. This whole copyright substructure dissolves when we introduce the volatile multimedia signal. We will have to invent another structure to fit this new literacy. Judging from the early signs, it won’t be easy.

If we ask, looking through the wide-angle lens of Western cultural history, “What does multimedia literacy do?”, a surprisingly focused answer comes back. It recaptures the expressivity of oral cultures, which printed books, and handwritten manuscripts before them, excluded. Think about the text you are reading right now. I’ve been trying to create a credible “speaking voice,” as we say in prose stylistics, to convince you that I’m a man of sense and restraint. I’ve been trying to present a credible public self. Now imagine that, when you clicked on the “author” box, I appeared as a moving image, walked into the margin and started to speak, commented on my own argument, elaborating it, underlining it with my voice, gesture, and dress—as happens nowadays in a multimedia text.

What has changed? All the clues we use in the oral culture of daily life, all the intuitive stylistic judgments that we depend on, have returned. You can see me for yourself. You can hear my voice. And you can feed that voice back onto the voiceless prose, and thus animate it. And yet the writing remains too, and its self. In this new literacy, you can see your author with stereoscopic depth, speaking in a space both literate and oral.

Oral cultures and literate cultures go by very different sets of rules. They observe different senses of time, as you will speedily understand if you listen to one of Fidel Castro’s four-hour speeches. Oral cultures prolong discourse because, without it, they cease to exist; lacking timeless writing, they exist only in time. Writing compresses time. That is where its power comes from— the writer compresses years of work into three hundred pages which the reader experiences in a single day.

Oral and literate cultures create different senses of self and society, too. The private reflective self created by reading differs profoundly from the unselfconscious social role played in a culture that knows no writing. Literacy allows us to see human society in formal terms denied to an oral culture that just plays out its drama. Western culture did not become “literate” as soon as writing was invented. Both ways of being in the world have contended rancorously throughout Western history, the rancor being driven more often than not by literate prejudice against oral discursive practices. Multimedia literacy allows both sets of rules to speak with equal voice and equal authority. The great gulf in utterance, and in cultural organization, opened up by fixed letters on a static surface, now promises to be healed by a new kind of literacy, one which orchestrates these differences in a signal at the same time more energizing and more irenic than the literacy of print.

If we exchange our wide-angle cultural lens for a close-up, we can observe the fundamental difference, on the micro level, between the two kinds of literacies. In the world of print, the signal and its expression are virtually one. The meaning takes the form of words; words generate the meaning. Digital literacy works in a inherently different way. The same digital code that expresses words and numbers can, if the parameters of expression are adjusted, generate sounds and images. Scaling, parametric variation, stands at the center of digital expressivity, a role it could never play in print. This polyvalent digital signal constitutes the core difference between the two literacies, a difference that our efforts so far in data visualization and sonification, wonderful as they are, have scarcely begun to explore. If we think of the institutional practices built upon the separation of words, images, and sounds (e.g., separate departments for literature, art, and music), we can glimpse the profound changes that will come when we put them back together.

To be deeply literate in the digital world means being well seen and well heard as well as well read, skilled at deciphering complex images and sounds as well as the syntactical complexity of words. Above all, it means being at home in a shifting mixture of words, images, and sounds. Multimedia literacy makes us all skilled opera fans.

Words give us one kind of knowledge; images another; sounds yet a third. Multimedia literacy requires that we be very quick on our feet in moving from one kind of knowledge to another. We must know what kinds of knowledge fit what kinds of expression. We must also be good at expressing our meaning in the medium that our audience will find easiest to understand. We all know people who learn well from books and others who learn by “hands on” manipulation of, as we say in music, “by ear.” Digital literacy greatly enhances our ability to suit the medium to the audience, to aim our communication at the part of the audience’s brain best able to receive it. Looked at one way, this new sensory targetting makes communication more “efficient.” Looked at another, it simply makes it more fun.

The multimedia mixture of talents was last advanced as an aristocratic ideal by the Renaissance humanists—the courtly lord and lady who must be equally accomplished in poetry, music, and art. It has now stepped forward, broadened in scope and somewhat coarsened in fiber perhaps, as the common core of citizenship in an information society. At its heart, the new digital literacy is thus profoundly democratic. It insists that the rich mixture of perceptive talents once thought to distinguish a ruling aristocracy must now be extended to everyone. It thus embodies fully the inevitable failures, and the extravagant hope, of democracy itself.

from Scientific American (September 1995).
Copyright © 1995 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved.