Monday, April 04, 2011

Electracy: The New, New Media Literacy - Trend 7 of 7 for Future of Arts

This is part eight in an ongoing series of posts on 7 Trends for the Future of the Arts. Originally published (and partially reprinted here with permission of the publisher) in the book: 20 Under 40: Reinventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. I'm presenting selections from each trend, and you can follow the whole post series from here. If you are interested in these arguments, check out and think about purchasing the book here.

The New, New Media Literacy: Electracy

Digital technology has changed many things, but it has done more than give society nifty new gadgets and new ways to connect. Noted theorist Greg Ulmer has proposed that through digital technology civilization has shifted from orality to literacy to electracy—where all thought, processes, writing, storytelling, and business practices are based on or mediated by electronic, visual, motion media communication. This is not media literacy, but rather a paradigmatic shift which the cultural sector should not just be aware of but should be leading, as the changes electracy will bring about may profoundly alter the world.

Linguist Walter Ong described the change from orality to literacy and how this altered society’s perception of the world. This paradigm shift changed the nature not just of communication, but of religion, art, politics, and other processes. Culture could now be written down and passed along, instead of repeated through folk-tales. News could spread via print, altering the shape of nations. Detailed instructions could be put in a book and learned not through lengthy apprenticeship but through study. All the world’s knowledge could be archived and stored in physical libraries. The very notion of who and what human beings are transformed as cultures became literate.

Likewise, humanness will change as populations shift from literate to electrate societies. Knowledge, religion, culture, and power will be altered in ways that can’t yet be comprehended. The tensions this shift will bring are already visible, for example, in the debates among parents and teachers over the impact of gaming on children’s literacy. The shift to electracy also threatens existing structures and challenges ideas of ownership through copyright, the nature of much work, the value of many goods, and will likely influence widely accepted notions of currency. Electracy gives new powers both to rebellion and to state control. It alters the notion of communication and the nature of privacy. Of course moving towards electracy also affects what people create and how they interact with their culture. The full scope of these permutations are only now becoming apparent but will likely continue to manifest as society develops and responds to the next iteration of the evolution of digital technology.

Where this leads next is uncertain. While literacy shaped laws, education, religion, culture, and politics it was also shaped by these same forces. So too will electracy be altered by society’s current beliefs, fears, and very often, by who is in power.

When decisions are being made about digital technology, decisions are also being made about the future of how society will think, conduct business, interact, make and enjoy art, and how individuals will behave as social beings. There is much danger that many of the possibilities of digital will be thwarted by incumbents who are threatened by the changes digital might bring. One sees this most clearly, thus far, in the battles over network neutrality, copyright, security, and privacy. These issues are important to arts leaders—because the decisions that take place today will likely affect the possible future(s) the cultural sector may experience tomorrow, as well as the legacy it will leave behind.

Next Up: Conclusions and Hints at 3 Other Important Trends Not in the Chapter.
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