Access to digital literacy increases potential for civic inclusion

Earlier this month, the UK government published a policy paper on “Digital Skills and Inclusion: Giving everyone access to the digital skills they need” that, in keeping with the authors’ purpose, focused on digital skill relevance to employability. Reading it from the perspective of a Stateside librarian committed to building and supporting means for transliteracy development, I see potential application to the need to educate both sides of the digital divide regarding the relevance of critical listening to critical thinking, the availability of resources to build critical listening skills, and, through access to digital audio, the tools to create listening capacity that opens channels of both understanding and empathy for civic participation to become more fully realized.

Transliteracy acknowledges that our human capacity to learn from and share informational and literary content cannot be limited to visual reading of text. Journalism has long left behind the limitation of print to transmit information through still and moving photography, spoken word broadcasts and podcasts, and interactive (social) platforms. Transliteracy describes the “ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.” The end sought through the means of transliteracy exercise, however, is to build the inclusive social and civic connections described in the UK paper on Digital Skills and Inclusion (cited above).

Attentive listening is no more a passive condition than is purposeful sight reading. We gain copious details by listening to content that escape us when seeing a text-based presentation, especially if we are either (1) a sight reader lacking fluency and thus stopped by confusion about punctuation or sentences with multiple dependent and independent clauses; or (2) an overly confident and actually lazy sight reader eager to achieve the finish line and prone to glossing past complex passages on the way to doing so.  A written passage may take several paragraphs to create, through text alone, those images and speeches and thoughts and explanations needed to present a single, momentary instant or insight. (Sequential art[ii], of course, can achieve this more efficiently). Visual performance arts, in addition to the copious acting skills of those on screen or stage, make use of scenery and costuming to impart information beyond the physical actions and words exchanged.

The audiobook performance of literature includes the sharing of geographic, class, and character detail through accents, tones, and pacing of the narrator’s voice, and may also use multiple narrators to further the nuanced delivery of a complex text. More subtly and yet more implacably, audiobook performances of  literature and both general and specialized nonfiction also give relevance to the author’s prosody and parse their sentence structure in a manner that makes these communication details simultaneously both meaningful and intuitive. This latter fact is what underlies the power of audiobook listening to jumpstart some readers’ capacity to understand text visually: punctuation becomes explicit through the voice; attributives are suitably informing without commanding.

To move from listening to well-performed audio editions of texts to listening critically to news sources, politicians, and other leaders is a natural outgrowth of skill development. And with that skill, the promise of better access to a culture in which the listener understands the meaning of the heard beyond the simple recognition of words, and can act in accordance with the listener’s own informed response to aural content.

The burgeoning state of audiobook publishing and digital accessibility goes far to support this essential strand of transliteracy. Content is no longer limited to classic literature and momentary bestsellers. Further, the digital format allows wide distribution through commercial, educational, and library venues, without the backbeat of broken and missing parts that made early audiobook collections harrowing to maintain and disappointing to borrow.

The promise of digital inclusiveness can find a low and accessible threshold through digital audiobook collections in libraries: learning to download self-chosen listening can motivate digital newcomers too daunted by such internet skill needs as communicating with government offices. The latter is a crucial need; the former puts the lifelong learner’s toe in the digital door. Digital audiobooks may be the wedge that cuts across the divides of digital access and digital literacy, transmedia skillfulness and disenfranchisement.  This means we need to build even further the relatively cheap access points to transmedia. Next week, that’s where this column will turn.

[i] After a lifetime of eschewing “their” as a sloppy way to refer to the individual of unknown gender, I have become a convert in keeping with my support of those whose gender identification outstrips the limitations of a binary system. Grammarians, I am not sorry if this offends.

[ii] Sequential art is the continuum from single panel spot cartoon through graphic novel, in which image and word are bound together and present the intended communication only through reading both at once. I’ll write about this here at another juncture.