Digital Social Formation and Literacy (Gee and Hayes)

Gee, James Paul, and Elisabeth Hayes. Language and Learning in the Digital Age. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Lots of important things to take away from this (short) book. It engages in a number of conversations I’m interested in

  •   the Orality/Literacy conversation (Gee and Hayes argue that digital media “power up” or enhance the powers of oral and written language),
  •   the literacy-technology/literacy-nature problem (Gee and Hayes equivocate not even a little bit about the fact that language is technology and that speech, thinking, singing, and writing are “delivery systems” and not themselves language; however, language is a technology that is tied to human nature),
  •   the embodied technology conversation (digital media brings language back to an embodied state that literacy displaced; digital literacy “returns to a landscape of voice”; “Human ability is so enhanced with tools that we can see the ‘person-with-tool’ as an integrated entity.”)
  •   economics of attention/new capitalism discourse (shape-shifting portfolio people, distributed global capitalism, identity niches)
  •   and a host of educational/institutional crisis discourses (i.e. the crisis of expertise, failures of literacy education, passionate affinity spaces, pancake people)

Most of their conclusions are about complexity—humans need to engage multitasking (because we long ago evolved to do so) and learn how to do it better in our ever-more-challenging world of increasingly complex systems. Digital media and the internet allow us to mine collaborative expertise and the wisdom of the crowds, but we’re still just learning how to do this to solve real problems. We need to become more critical consumers of multimodal texts. We also need to become better at systems thinking or “nexus thinking and action.” But this is not a rose-rimmed oracle for the future. At the same time that it works against stifling global homogeneity, Gee and Hayes argue, digital social formation also holds the peril of polarization, of groups that can’t feel empathy for people that aren’t in the group.

And of course, in good Gee and Hayes fashion, they do this with plenty of interesting and unusual examples: from cat listservs and The Sims to our recent global economic ‘downturn,’ World of Warcraft, and Rise of Nations.

Plenty to connect with; especially drawing things between Shirky and Benkler and Lanham when I get more strongly into that part of my reading.


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