Blog Post

Twenty-First Century Literacies: Midterm Exam

The following text is the result of a collaborative midterm exam in Professor Cathy Davidson's course at Duke University entitled English 90CS: "Twenty-first Century Literacies."  This essay was formulated online by 15 undergraduate students using a Google document to collectively organize and edit their thoughts to create a coherent and concise response as they answered the following question: 

What are 21st Century Literacies?  What, if anything, connects these literacies?  Why are they important?

Here is what they came up with:
[note: please forgive any punctuation errors which typically result from copying & pasting from another document into the HASTAC blogging platform.  The illiteracy is the result of the website, not our brilliant students!]

Twenty-first century literacies--the new set of skills emerging in the Information Age--are woven together in a web of interaction and interdependency. Each literacy is not only linked with those directly surrounding it but also connected to the entire set of literacies as part of a changing perspective on the relationship between the sciences and the humanities.

At the heart of literacy is communication. Literacies are the tangible media of communication, the palpable links between humans that affect how we acquire and mentally incorporate information. Traditionally, literacy is intimately related to text, but in fact we read in many different ways--and these ways are expanding as technology expands. Though we still read printed text, we now read body language, blogs, tweets, fMRI scans, code, and so much more. As the rapid growth of the Information Age changes how we communicate, who is communicating, and the speed at which we can communicate with one another, a new set of twenty-first century literacies has emerged and fundamentally restructured our world. In this essay, our class seeks to explore and synthesize several of the literacies we have discussed: design, authorship, intellectual property, and collaboration. Though each one affords a different lens through which we can view our world, the most important aspect of the twenty-first century literacies is the way in which they are connected. Collectively, these new literacies represent a shift in our perspective; rather than viewing the humanities and the sciences as divided and in conflict, we now view these disciplines as interconnected and interdependent.


The idea of design for an aesthetic purpose has been around since the invention of print. As evident in this picture of changing logos,, design has been a large influence in product marketing since the early 1800s. With the invention of the Internet in the 1990s, however, design has expanded from the world of concrete print to a more virtual world. In a virtual world, the design of any one item is forced to move along with the pace of the Internet. Design is no longer held back by the fixed pace of printing machines, instead, it can be changed continuously and immediately. Using the Internet, anyone can become a designer. While designing on print requires creative and artistic skills, designing on the Internet simply requires an innovative idea and the right programs. In general, it is the job of a good design to be aesthetically impressive in order to attract and advance people, and to create communication among them.

Designs are important as our views on things change, because there is a design behind everything. As our minds change and how we look into things, the design behind that need to match what we as people want to see. For example, the design of a companys logo or brand is a common tool used by companies to get consumers to recognize and remember their products, in essence it serves as their identity. So in time the design of these logos change because people change.  This is how form over function comes into play; form will always be manipulated to accommodate function.  Meaning the effectiveness of the function not form is paramount to a brand.


The basic definition of authorship is the act of creating written works. But, what defines authorship now in an era where crowdsourcing and websites such as Wikipedia exist? If you're editing or adding onto a document or idea, which may involve just as much effort as creating, then are you considered an author? These questions make authorship a relevant and changing definition. After all, a person who contributes is an author of something in some way. It is what links authorship to collaboration -- is anyone really an "author" in terms of "creating" something new? I think these questions lend to the fact that an author in modern times is different from previous ages, and we need to allow for an adaptable definition of the term. In that way, it may be difficult to come up with a concrete definition for the term author. Authorship should include the contributors as well as the creator of the original idea.  In order to evaluate the importance of authorship in the discussion between science and art, it is necessary to define what an author is. An author is anybody who can claim ownership over the existence of a work. A work is anything that is materialized from an idea, therefore it can be written, but is not limited to the written word. An author can also be someone who contributes a valuable idea.

Also, previously an author came up with written works the connotation of written being that it was something tangible. Such as, written with a pen and paper. Does the implication of the Internet change that? Especially since using that medium, it allows for people to edit, comment, borrow and then build on your work. However, this does not detract from the definition of authorship. It merely expands it, stretching to encompass and include different kinds of authors, once again trying the issue of authorship in with collaboration. At some point in the future, I think the two may be able to become synonyms given that a collaborator can play a pivotal role in the authorship process. Besides, The Internet isnt written in pencil, its written in ink (The Social Network).

The issue of authorship in its most basic form boils down to a few interdependent/interconnected questions: Who does an idea/work belong to? Who brought it into existence? How do you reconcile these questions when there is a collaboration of authors? In the debate between science and art/humanities, it is often difficult to discern what belongs to who, in the authorial sense. When we take this idea and apply it to the debate between science and art, it is difficult to define an authors role in each side of the debate, simply because they are so different from one another. Where science is based largely on ration, logic, and fact, the arts are much looser and much less dependent on ration. Rather, the arts appreciate opinion, argument, and interpretation much more than the sciences do. This naturally creates a divide between the two sides. Because the sciences require exploration and discovery of truths, often time the work that is produced for the world can have multiple authors, or people who can claim ownership over the discovery of the truths. How does an author claim ownership over a work they produce when there are many people who can claim authorship? Can everybody who worked on the discovery of truth claim ownership equally? In terms of the arts, authorship usually has taken on on a much stricter role. When a painter paints an image artistically or a writer pens a novel, it strictly belongs to them. Art is so dependent on the authors subjectivity that the debate of who authored something does not have as much weight as it does in the objective, hard sciences. As members of the 21st Century,  it is very important to consider how collaboration and authorship work together though. The roles of authorship in regards to the sciences and art have been altered because of the ease of collaboration. For example, music gives rise to multiple authors. Lets think about this: lyrics are written work, but often whoever writes the lyrics is not the one singing the song. Similarly, in the sciences, experiments are generally run by a principal investigator who does little to none of the actual experiment. Rather, lab members are responsible, yet everybody is given credit for the work that is produced. It is essential to note that authorship is an issue that must be dealt with across all disciplines, especially in the age of collaboration. This midterm exam is an excellent example of authorship and collaboration working together. As one of the authors of the essay, I can attest to the fact that we have collaboratively authored the entirety of it, which really changes the concepts regularly associated with humanities related authorship.


According to Merriam-Webster Online intellectual property is defined as: property (as an idea, invention, or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect; also: an application, right, or registration relating to this.

Above is a bunch of links that go over some legal terms such as Fair Use and appropriation, and elaborate more professionally on copyright laws; but also some the links deal with recent issues of copyright and intellectual property. For instance, maybe the most recent was the Shepard Fairey vs. The Associated Press case where Los Angeles based graffiti artist Shepard Fairey used a photo of soon-to-be President Barack Obama at a press conference to create the famously known Obama Hope colored-print, as a means of generating support for Barack Obamas candidacy for President. The most helpful link is the link. It has a great list of links to articles and pages about intellectual property.

Besides the Shepard Fairey vs. The Associated Press case, another recent intellectual property issue relevant in our minds, and the basis for David Finchers drama The Social Network, would be the lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg during the initial development of Facebook. The issue at hand was over the intellectual rights to a social networking idea among a few Harvard students. Mark Zuckerberg was accused of stealing the idea of the networking website for Harvard students. In his defense, Zuckerberg claimed he used a completely different code to build the site; therefore he is not, as accused, violating intellectual copyright laws. However, Zuckerberg and Facebook settled the case paying $20 million and transferring over 1.2 million common shares. The ambiguous contention, that obscures how we normally treat intellectual property, in this case is the nature of how we treat coding, and how that coding relates to the right of the idea. Does the idea emerge from the code, or is the idea superior to the code? Is the code irrelevant to the idea, or must we treat code like any material work? These are still questions for us, but regardless, we can agree, there is definitely a new form of literacy developing.


 Thats correct. He had 42 days to study our system and get out ahead on--


Do you see any of your code on Facebook?


(help me) Sy, could you--

SY (calming him) Mark--


Did I use any of your code?


You stole our whole goddamn idea!


The ever-expanding digital world has provided some, if not the most, extensive means of collaboration, as well as a broad dispute over intellectual property. With more and more of the digital becoming interactive and highly collaborative, our understanding of authorship has transformed into something less immediate which only complicates an already tricky theory of intellectual property. The idea of an intangible creation abstracts itself, the generation of remixing authors and collaborative mash-up just further abstracts it. Nothing arises out of nothing. Intellectual property is still a conglomerate of materials, or rather immaterial pieces, made into something else, some other object, original and separate from its parts. So now what was once separate has become a material, an article for use in a new medium.

Intellectual property is much more about the legal and social questions that one must consider when looking at creative ownership and the use of these created materials, how these ideas have changed with the expansion of the digital world. In this case, science and technology are not working against artistic license as if it were an antagonistic force, instead the case would be that it is forcing us to reevaluate how property (intangible property that is), copyright of creativity, and the publication of these types of works are used in a medium that is constantly producing and reproducing itself like a rapidly dividing cell, in a medium that affords itself to so many types of users, where now the issue of appropriation has never been so prevalent, where both the ideas of typical authorship and classic intellectual property right laws are becoming more enigmatic, insisting that we reevaluate both these concepts.

Authorship and intellectual property are related entities, but the definitions of both have evolved to accommodate 21st century changes. The author is a label that historically could always be given to one person, but the frequency of collaboration nowadays necessitates attribution to multiple authors. Intellectual property is a term that has only recently (within that past century) come into use; because it concerns the intellectual ideas and creations of an individual and the exclusive rights that individual has to those ideas. Therefore, intellectual property is almost the new-age way of claiming authorship by getting copyright, or getting a patent, an individual is making claim that he or she was the first one to authorize something. Across academic disciplines, regardless if they are in the social sciences, the physical sciences or the humanities, many academics research the same topics. And yet, we often see collaborative efforts done on journal articles that give authorship credit to different experts in the field all across the world. Researchers tend to look toward other experts who share similar interests and have the same knowledge to collaborate on a paper this harmony (although not always the case) among researchers almost eliminates the need of intellectual property to claim authorship in academia.


 There is some worry that collaboration can suppress rather than promote creative construction. In the digital age, there are more opportunities than ever to collaborate, as the Internet allows everyone to have a voice. Collaboration has become even more valuable in todays world as the Internet has been key in linking various areas of study. With the advent of the Internet and tools such as social networking, communication has become so easy that everyone gets a seat at the table. This has been particularly evident in the academic world. For example, academic departments that have previously worked amongst themselves are now more open and communicative and thus functioning more productively.

While this is mostly considered an advancement, there are some who say it is not. For example some who oppose the Media Commons-type crowdsourced peer-review do so because they believe there are people more and less qualified to peer-edit certain documents. A similar conversation surrounded the advent of Wikipedia.

For example, the study of mirror neurons has sparked interest in a wide variety of academic departments. When specialist Vittorio Gallese made the trip to Duke University to present a lecture on the topic, his visit received interdisciplinary sponsorship from the Center for French and Francophone Studies, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Franklin Humanities Institute. This cooperation is made much more feasible by the various forms of communication technology affords us today. We are given the ability to interact with each other in such a way that enriches our understanding of topics, such as Galleses mirror neurons theory.

The trend of increased collaboration between people with different views and expertise is likely to continue, as communication and interaction in various forms continues to improve through advances in technology. Not only can people studying the same or similar subjects in different parts of the world team up, but also people studying different subject matters can learn from one another. The result is a more dynamic learning environment where everyone benefits from each others unique ideas and inputs.

At a Ted conference in 2010, Clay Shirky gave a talk on cognitive surplus and how we can use it to change civic society. He explains that people "design for generosity". With media in general, we are participants creating for other participants. Websites like wordpress, youtube, and flickr are powered by intrinsic motivation. People share knowledge on these sites because they like to, not because they are being paid to do so. As Shirky discusses, if we couple humans' natural tendency to "design for generosity" with the communicative abilities of technology today we could create an information powerhouse.


In February 2011, Mercedes-Benz hired ShalmorAvnonAmichay/Y&R Interactive Tel Aviv advertising agency to create a seemingly unrelated ad campaign, entitled Left Brain/Right Brain. These images, found at, depict a well-sketched drawing of the human brain, each with a strict delineation between the left and right hemispheres: Brief anecdotes were written for either hemisphere, the left in concise and regimented rhetoric, the right catering to the flair for passion and creativity it claims to possess. The images, with their striking colors, careful lines, and stark dichotomy, are in close keeping with the traditional (and opposing) ideals of right brain (which typically deals with art and creativity) and left brain (which is the math side).

With the turn of the century, however, comes several new types of literacy that may negate the prior need to separate right and left brain so fervently. Where once the word literacy pertained to text and its aesthetic absorption, media progression through the twenty-first century has expanded the bounds of what we today know as literacy. Like the popular term technology (il)literate implies, there are a great many ways to read, including, but not limited to, those stated above. Mirror neurons, for example, appear to be a stunning demonstration of how science might react with the arts; of how the right and left hemispheres of the brain work together, and not against each other. The make-up of the physical brain and its workings might belong in the left brain field; but the affordance, say, of these mirror neurons to allow someone to learn piano might be centered in the creative side of the brain. It seems, then, that literacy in the twenty-first century depends not on the contrast of the two sides of the brain, nor does responsibility fall to one side or the other; on the contrary, achievement requires work in tandem. Because these new literacies--and others--are all dependent upon one another, and yet independent of the necessity for concrete text, we can see that the twenty-first century literacies have shifted previously left brain ideologies--that which deals in analytical and rigid rhetoric--and right brain ideologies--that which deals with progressive creativity--to a comfortable and codependent stance. Perhaps, then, the advertisers at Mercedes-Benz are not simply appealing to our eyes with their new left brain/right brain ads, but to our new found abilities to read the world around us using all our faculties.



No comments