Access to literacy connection: Material technology still needed

With the exception of oral storytelling, every way we share literature, published information, and literacy experiences requires some kind of material tool. From clay tablets to paperbacks, cinema screens to computer screens, live theater stages to the mobiles on which apps can reach audio files, we need to control an object of technology (or technologies) in order to get narrative access. Each newly rising literacy experience technology bridge has been met by naysayers, unwilling to give up the old—tried and true, in their estimation—material access point for something newer, less cumbersome and, often, more difficult for the naysayer accustomed to another sort of technology, to use at the start.

The reality, of course, is that everything we do as individuals is more difficult when we first try it, from dressing ourselves to negotiating a journey beyond our home. And we learn to achieve some level of technical competency because others before us have achieved competency that, through repeated use has attained popular assimilation: our general culture accepts clothing and travel outside as normative reliances on material objects. The same has become true for literacy throughout many world cultures. Literacy’s spread, in fact, depended on material things—manuscripts that preserved words and concepts developed by earlier authors and then printed books that made the transmission of scripted literature available to copious duplication (and thus wider distribution). Culturally, although of course never universally as individuals, we have achieved literacy, using yesterday’s tools.

From the 1950-s through the end of the last century, at what I call “peak paper” (which came a couple decades before the economic use of the term to refer to paper production), print books were to be had for the price of a trip to the library, membership in by-mail book clubs, shopping at local (and already some online) bookstores. Each of these access points required (and still require) funds—the reader’s own pocketbook, the community’s civic budget, the seller’s costs for staff, location, and supplies. We didn’t consider these material objects—books, magazine, audio and video tapes and then discs—as beside the point of our use of them; we recognized the need for their materiality in order for our experiences with literacy to occur.

In the here and now, we use non-material digitized files and streaming to access literature and information. And for those of even modest means, for government interactions with the governed, and for publishing, the fact of materiality as essential to literacy access becomes clouded by connective ubiquity. The truth, however, is we continue to need something material in order to “catch” that digitized flow for our eyes or ears.

While access to digital media certainly requires digital literacy, the economics of literacy continues to hold a material cost. Mobile access isn’t universal, although the percentage of those who can claim it continues to rise steeply. Here’s an international demographic view of mobile device use from October 2016 (pretty up to date in terms of obtaining analyzed demographic statistics). While these are nationally sorted figures, a further breakdown by economic classes within a country would show, of course, disparate access levels between the well to do and those struggling; it’s not a straight correlation, of course, as Americans below the poverty level are dependent on mobiles for access to the internet and thus to job-related communications, social and health service points, and connections among family members. But to use mobile access as a point of downloading files requires data usage, and there’s a cost that continues to stand in the way of universal access through the most universally-owned device.

The digital divide informs the literacy divide, to a degree. There is the need to own or have free use of a thing (mobile or other computer) and the price of data for retrieving files. Without these two, borrowing audiobooks (or e-books in text format, for that matter) can’t be realized in spite of public collections or a friend who would loan it to you.

What can be done to make digital (audio)books truly free and thus available to enhance universal literacy? Libraries are loaning Roku video players, tablets, preloaded e-readers, and preloaded digital players that include specific audiobooks among other content selections. None of these choices, to date, except for the web-enabled and data-supplied tablets, offer borrowers access to selecting their own audiobook content from the now well over 100,000 available from publishers and vendors. Digital inclusion requires hardware, data, and skills. As long as we treat the means for obtaining narrative as commodities, we haven’t broken through the glass ceiling to universal access. Some of us can choose our listening and reading from anything; on the other side of the digital divide, potential readers, whether visual or auditory, are limited to choices for which they have the material means required for access to be realized.