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There has been a lot of talk about the importance of social media in recent world events. See for instance, here, here, and here. Some of the more astute commentators have referred to earlier technological revolutions and their impact on television: usenet, fax machines, television, cameras, telegraph, and even the printing press. One technology, however, always seem to get left out, maybe because it seems too “obvious,” and that is literacy.
This is too bad because there is a great literature on the subject. A user named “dinalopez” has put together a wonderful bibliography on WorldCat – a list which contains many of my favorite articles on the subject, as well as many I haven’t read. I wanted to draw upon this critical literacy studies literature to make three points about technology and social change.
The first point comes from a paper F. Niyi Akinnaso (my Ph.D. advisor) wrote for the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. “Schooling, Language, and Knowledge in Literate and Nonliterate Societies” draws on Akinnaso’s knowledge of Yoruba divination practices to challenge the “over-simplified view of education in nonliterate societies.” This is important because he shows that the social organization of schooling associated with literate societies is not dependent on literacy, and that similar practices can be found in some nonliterate societies. He does not deny that these institutional patterns are more typical of literate societies, but it would be a mistake to attribute too much explanatory force to literacy. The Yoruba case shows that literacy is not a necessary factor in the creation of such social institutions.
The second point comes from Brian Street’s important book Literacy in theory and Practice. In this book Street argues that there is not one universal form of literacy, but multiple “literacies.” In Iran in the 1970s (where he did fieldwork) many people learn to “read” the Koran by wrote memorization. They are literate in the sense that they can look at a page of the Koran and recite the appropriate passages, but not in the sense of being able to use their literacy to read other texts besides the Koran.
Finally, the third point I wanted to make about literacy comes from an article by Terence Turner about how the Kayapo in Brazil have appropriated the use of video cameras. I put this in the context of literacy precisely because one of the important aspects of video use by the Kayapo is to record the promises of politicians. Before video cameras they similarly made audio recordings – both useful methods for a society which (at the time) lacked literacy. It is also worth mentioning a second aspect of their use of video technology, which is their appearance, in native-dress, at political protests carrying video cameras. Here their use of video cameras became the story, one with broad international appeal, allowing them to reach a much larger audience.
So what do these three points teach us about “Twitter Revolutions”? First, the technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used. In many cases social media is more a means of communicating what is happening on the ground with the outside world, as diasporic populations keep in touch with their friends and family at home via Facebook and Twitter, than it is a means of organizing activity on the ground. If these social networks exist, families will communicate with them however they can, whether by usenet, fax machine, telegraph, or letter. The second point is that the mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way. Certainly there is a huge difference in how Twitter is used at the annual anthropology conferences and at an event like SXSW. And the third point is that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for people to be fascinated by how this technology is being used in Egypt. Certainly it has allows us to voyeuristically participate in world events from afar. Whether this helps or not is hard to say, but I’ll leave you with this quote by Aaron Bady:
I am under no illusions that it will do the people of Egypt any particular good for me to retweet links to articles and images and expressions of the righteous human spirit so gloriously on display in Egypt right now — much as I would like it to — but that’s not really why I’ve been doing it. It’s selfish. It is for me, because it’s what I need to do as a person whose spiritual body has gotten very hungry. I want to be a part of something hopeful because I find that too much hopelessness has crept too deeply into the person I have no choice but to be.