To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.
Design implies intent. However, when we are missing the holistic perspective, intentional solutions at a micro-level create unintentional consequences to the larger system. A shadow Design emerges, circumventing the Design process at the system-level and leaving us with a systemic solution that only vaguely touches on the fundamental problems that the system must solve.
Issue 6. March 2017
design & literacy
Literacy is power. This is an indisputable correlation, one darkly underscored by the fact that 18% of Americans read at the lowest level of the PIAAC literacy scale. In the world, an estimated 775,000,000 individuals lack minimum literacy skills, functionally excluded —at the most fundamental level— from participation in the world around them.
Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.
- UNESCO, Literacy for All
When one thinks about basic survival in the modern world —just going through a day to procure shelter, food, clean water, clothes, and the other bare necessities for daily sustenance— one will not get very far before an assumption of basic literacy is made, whether it is the reading of a sign about contaminants in the well water, or the paperwork involved in finding a job or in applying for government assistance.
And that is just to survive, much less to enjoy the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. These rights must be understood as a luxury requiring a higher level of literacy than the baseline represented in the shameful statistics.
This illiteracy pertains to written communication at the most basic level, at a level in which we assume that the text is clear and the source is honest in intent. But, in what world is one surrounded with straightforward, honest content?
A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
We live in an age where we truly need a college course “to help [college] students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.”
This is to say that we may need to reexamine our definition of ‘functionally illiterate’, to really think about the level of literacy required to be an “instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world”.
Are we still talking about the basic ability to read & write, or something currently far more elite, confined to a far smaller percentage of our population?
Might all of our technological progress, all our efforts to be better connected, be sending us backwards, denying more and more of humanity this “fundamental human right”? What is our responsibility to change this course?
To set the stage for students to succeed at reading, teachers can supply ample time for text reading, direct strategy instruction, and opportunities for collaboration and discussion.
Reading Comprehension: What Works by Linda Fielding and David Pearson, 1994
- “In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”
Is Google Making Us Stupid?, The Atlantic, 2008
- “A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently.”
Twilight of the Books, The New Yorker, 2007
- “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.”
Frederick Douglass on becoming literate
- “Padme points out that liberty dies ‘with thunderous applause,’ but really their liberty is dying because most of them can’t read and are powerless and disenfranchised.”
Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate by Ryan Britt, Tor, 2014
In modern societies, ‘literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community’ (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12).
Michelle Trudeau, Why Literacy Matters, UNESCO 2006
- “A young woman who was on the resident council of a nearby public housing development stood up: ‘They want to tear down our homes! They bring all these HUD HOPE VI documents for us to read, and not one of us has finished high school, so we have to depend on outsiders to interpret for us. We need literacy so we can make our own decisions! Can you help us do that?’”
YES! A Literacy Program's Antiracist Journey, NCSALL, 2003
- “Page turning remains a bad interface, even when it can be done more conveniently than by clicking the mouse on a ‘next page’ button. It is an insufficient goal to make computerized text as fast as print: we need to improve on the past, not simply match it.”
Jakob Nielsen on early etext tablets, 1998
- “The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world.”
Henry A. Giroux, The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy, 2013
- “But as important as literacy may be, the United States Supreme Court has unambiguously rejected the claim that public education is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”
Timothy Haynes, Assistant state Attorney General for Michigan, in response to lawsuit holding Detroit accountable for illiteracy among public schoolchildren.
- “Taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy 'mental lifting,' and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.”
Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop, Scientific American, 2014
- “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”
To Read or Not To Read, NEA, 2007
- “If you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”
Julie Coiro, Being a Better Online Reader, The New Yorker, 2014
- “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”
Is Google Making Us Stupid?, The Atlantic, 2008
- “A dyslexic child's potential is often absolutely invisible because they have thought they were stupid and it is a complex embroidery of thinking they are different, and they're stupid and they can't learn.”
Maryanne Wolf on Dyslexia as a Gift
- “Preliminary results showed that among the kindergarteners... there was a high correlation between the time the students spent with a tablet and their speed in learning to name letters, an indicator of early-childhood literacy.”
Andy Isaacson, Are Tablets the Way Out of Child Illiteracy?, Smithsonian, 2014
- “Officials say that it is thanks to the ‘Yes, I can’ programme that illiteracy rates dropped from 13.28% in 2001 to 3.8% in 2014, when the last census was conducted. This means that Bolivia is now among the countries considered to have eradicated illiteracy by Unesco's standards, which requires countries to maintain a rate of illiteracy of below 4%.”
How Bolivia Combats Illiteracy by Fellipe Abreu and Luiz Felipe Silva, BBC, 2016
- “For the first time in over a quarter-century, our survey shows that literary reading has risen among adult Americans. After decades of declining trends, there has been a decisive and unambiguous increase among virtually every group measured in this comprehensive national survey.”
Reading on the Rise, NEA, 2009
- “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment. We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”
Dr. Maryanne Wolf, Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University
Our world is designed through our actions and inactions, ignorance and enlightenment. With this newsletter, we strive to provide some of the context necessary to understand the largest problems facing the world today. We are all implicit in this mess.
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage