Matters of Media

At the end of last year, my library school classmate Lane Wilkinson and I had this great email conversation. I had just posted Redefining Transliteracy, and he and I discussed the various implications of it. What I found most awesome were Lane’s questions regarding definitions of words used in the language-based transliteracy definition: “What do you mean by language?”, “What does encoding and decoding mean in this context?”, etc.

Given that turnabout is fair play, and that Lane specifically requested feedback, I have a definition-based question regarding his recent post:

What definition of medium is used in this context?

Mean Medium? Mode?

To me, a medium is a go-between over time and space used to convey information:

  • An artist’s medium might be oil on canvas
  • A telegraph’s medium is electricity over wire
  • At the endpoint of a telegraph (or phone, or radio) is another medium — waves of sound over air

Medium can inform us about a lot of things. It can also confuse the issue. The reason I’ve pushed so hard for literacies to be defined as language skills is that many languages are relatively medium-agnostic. A letter written in ink on paper and one written in marker on posterboard are different in many ways, including both medium and aspects of visual language; but if the textual content of both is the same, the written language of both is equivalent. If that same text is on a computer screen or a television or a tattoo, the written language portion remains congruent.

In usage, people also tend to conflate medium with mode (semiotic modality). Modality is nearly a sensory means of categorization. Except it’s not.

Whether medium or modality, questions arise:

  • Is there any difference between watching a video on television or on YouTube? Is it the video that’s different? The screen? Or is it the non-video stuff that surrounds a YouTube video?
  • What about a watching a film on an old CRT and a new HD LCD? Different literacies?
  • Isn’t print literacy a visual literacy? If medium or mode is important, what is the necessity of the distinction?
  • If someone reads text on a computer, is it print literacy or computer literacy or both? Why?
  • If both the medium and the mode of spoken word and of music is the same, in a medium-or-mode-literacy world can they be considered the same literacy?


Language requires a medium. Communicating (over time and space) constitutes information being encoded into signs and symbols and sent over a channel, then decoded by the receiver(s) to be interpreted. Often, though, changing the channel has little effect on the integrity of the semiotics. McLuhan’s stickiest mind-virus, “the medium is the message,” is widely misunderstood, and is dead wrong much more often than it is right.

Since literacies are abilities for a sender to write and a receiver to read a message, rather than abilities of either party to grok a medium, it makes more sense from a literacy taxonomy standpoint to define and categorize literacies by linguistic properties rather than media.

Also, I think the literacy ecosystem would be a lot cleaner if we could agree that, whether “information literacy” is actually a literacy or literacies or not, its name is a really crappy mistake.

Otherwise, the diagram is fantastic. It’s especially astute because it shows how literacies named and in common use can be grouped, even if those named literacies are themselves problematic. Literacy sucks indeed.