On Literacy and the Lack Thereof

14 March, 2021


“Map” by Jasper Johns (1961), cour­tesy of MoMA.

In which Mar­cus Gilroy-Ware reminds us that not only are we to con­cern our­selves with the truth of the infor­ma­tion we con­sume as social media surfers and news junkies—hoping to avoid being duped by “fake news”—but we’ve also got to tune up our essen­tial lit­er­a­cy when it comes to under­stand­ing what the hell we’re read­ing, or look­ing at. In oth­er words, pro­ceed with cau­tion when it comes to “the per­ilous sta­tus of the ‘truth’ under neolib­er­al­ism” because lit­er­a­cy and numer­a­cy are on the decline, notes Gilroy-Ware, who adapts some of the argu­ments in what fol­lows from his new book, After the Fact, The Truth About Fake News (Repeater Books, Lon­don, 2020). —Ed.

Marcus Gilroy-Ware

Pro­test­ers against the COVID-19 lock­downs in the US, Ger­many and Brazil all dis­played a basic fail­ure to under­stand what a pan­dem­ic is, how a virus spreads, or what the dan­gers of such a sit­u­a­tion actu­al­ly are. Fre­quent­ly appear­ing from the far-right, they were typ­i­cal­ly inco­her­ent in their rea­son­ing and basic grasp of the prob­lems about which they were so angry — some­thing that often exac­er­bates the destruc­tive vit­ri­ol with which their posi­tions are expressed. But the prob­lem is that there are a lot of forces at work to ensure that as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble are unable to make sense of their polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances, and it would be a dan­ger­ous­ly elit­ist and pos­i­tivist fic­tion to point the fin­ger at them and say that they are sim­ply the stu­pid ones. 

The prob­lem of lit­er­a­cy can and must be addressed in a way that is built on an eth­ic of sol­i­dar­i­ty rather than elit­ism.

— Mar­cus Gilroy-Ware

Instead, what I hope to show here is that while cer­tain forms of lit­er­a­cy and illit­er­a­cy may vary accord­ing to prox­im­i­ty to pow­er and pres­tige, the pres­ence of some form of illit­er­a­cy whol­ly tran­scends those bound­aries. Not only can mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion come just as eas­i­ly “from the top”, but the prob­lem of lit­er­a­cy can and must be addressed in a way that is instead built on an eth­ic of sol­i­dar­i­ty rather than elit­ism, by want­i­ng the great­est lit­er­a­cy for all. Lit­er­a­cy is a col­lec­tive, social accom­plish­ment, not some­thing for which indi­vid­ual mem­bers of the pub­lic can or should be held accountable. 

The idea of lit­er­a­cy can func­tion help­ful­ly in both in the lit­er­al sense — the abil­i­ty to read and write eas­i­ly — and the more help­ful metaphor­i­cal sense: a famil­iar­i­ty with the accept­ed ana­lyt­i­cal sys­tems and mech­a­nisms of how the world works in a way that makes it more dif­fi­cult to believe dis­in­for­ma­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion that are at odds with this knowl­edge. Lit­er­a­cy is a per­fect metaphor pre­cise­ly because the skills referred to by its lit­er­al mean­ing have suf­fered the same fate, and for sim­i­lar rea­sons, as the broad­er sense of “famil­iar­i­ty” which I will out­line below. 

As far as actu­al lit­er­a­cy, in the basic sense of read­ing and writ­ing, it is impor­tant that this empha­sis too should not degrade into a snob­by rea­son to cor­rect peo­ple’s gram­mar instead of lis­ten­ing to what they have to say. But there is some­thing telling about the fact that so-called “devel­oped” coun­tries that claim lit­er­a­cy rates near 100% fea­ture grow­ing lev­els of func­tion­al illit­er­a­cy. This decline is peri­od­i­cal­ly sym­bol­ized by pub­lic gaffes involv­ing poor spelling and gram­mar. For exam­ple, afi­ciona­dos of 1990s US pol­i­tics will recall the con­tro­ver­sy that arose when Dan Quayle, Vice Pres­i­dent dur­ing the sin­gle-term pres­i­den­cy of George H.W. Bush, mis­spelled “pota­toe”, mis­cor­rect­ing a 12-year-old who had in fact spelled it cor­rect­ly. Images abound on the inter­net of most­ly right-wing Amer­i­cans and Brits hold­ing mis­spelled signs such as “RESPECT ARE COUNTRY — SPEAK ENGLISH”, so much so that exten­sive col­lec­tions of them have been col­lat­ed for amusement. 

When these reac­tionar­ies are unable to spell the most basic of words in a polit­i­cal con­text or artic­u­late their beliefs with coheren­cy, it is very easy for the cri­tique that aris­es to meet them to con­sti­tute ridicule on account of their seem­ing lack of edu­ca­tion. The same was true when a group of far-right pro­test­ers from the “Eng­lish Defence League” held a March in the Eng­lish town of Luton in 2011, seem­ing­ly in protest against Islam. One young man, inter­viewed by a jour­nal­ist about why he was there, launched into a baf­fling expla­na­tion of how “mus­lam­ic infi­dels” want to impose “Iraqi law” on the UK and have already done so in Lon­don. The footage was lat­er turned into an “anthem” with the man’s voice auto-tuned to “sing” his words. But how­ev­er absurd peo­ple may sound, ridicule sel­dom if ever wins this kind of argu­ment, and only deep­ens the resent­ment felt by those are sneered at, ridiculed and exclud­ed. The man’s extreme prej­u­dice is abhor­rent, but it is also clear he does not know any­thing about the peo­ple and sys­tems he claims to hate. There is some­thing extreme­ly trag­ic about his igno­rance, and the way it has allowed him to devel­op opin­ions that not only have no basis in real­i­ty, but also evi­dence his pro­found exclu­sion from any rel­e­vant debates about Islam, immi­gra­tion, or mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism in Britain. 

In the UK, the 2006 gov­ern­ment-com­mis­sioned report Leitch Review of Skills found that “more than one third of adults do not hold the equiv­a­lent of a basic school-leav­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Almost one half of UK adults (17 mil­lion) have dif­fi­cul­ty with num­bers and one sev­enth (5 mil­lion) are not func­tion­al­ly literate.” 

This sit­u­a­tion has not improved. 


Why does    misinformation    work?

Why does mis­in­for­ma­tion work?

More recent­ly, as the Guardian report­ed of the doc­u­men­tary film H Is For Har­ry, as many as nine mil­lion adults in the UK are func­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate — 13% of the pop­u­la­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, data from the OECD in 2013 showed that more than 17% of the US pop­u­la­tion was at or below Lev­el 1 — the most basic lev­el of lit­er­a­cy skills. Unlike the broad­er forms of lit­er­a­cy and illit­er­a­cy that I’ll out­line below, research sug­gests that actu­al illit­er­a­cy not only has a pro­found socioe­co­nom­ic impact on peo­ple, but is tied to oth­er forms of social depri­va­tion and exclu­sion, often run­ning in fam­i­lies by lim­it­ing par­ents’ abil­i­ty to help their chil­dren learn (ibid.). What­ev­er one’s pol­i­tics, this should only under­line the impor­tance of uni­ver­sal access to qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, and the only appro­pri­ate response should be to call for these mea­sures to be wide­ly adopt­ed. But even the basic form of actu­al illit­er­a­cy out­lined here is hard­ly a fringe issue. 

Whether, as Mar­shall McLuhan famous­ly warned, the “medi­um is the mes­sage” is still arguable either way, but the media we use and the ways we use them cer­tain­ly can be indica­tive of the broad­er changes to pub­lic lit­er­a­cy. The dig­i­tal medi­a­tion of read­ing and writ­ing may be par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic, espe­cial­ly in so far as it indi­cates the poten­tial for an even more wide­spread prob­lem that is gen­er­a­tional­ly demar­cat­ed, rather than eco­nom­i­cal­ly. In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit Britain, hash­tags con­tain­ing mis­spelled words relat­ing to the cri­sis appeared in Twit­ter’s trend­ing top­ics bar, on two sep­a­rate occa­sions: #Convid19uk and #Pan­ick­buy­ing. Mean­while, the Ukrain­ian-Amer­i­can inter­net start­up Gram­marly, whose prod­uct uses so-called “arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence” to cor­rect peo­ple’s spelling and gram­mar, and whose long- stand­ing YouTube ad cam­paign reg­u­lar­ly remind­ed peo­ple in a cute voice as they were about to watch a video that “writ­ing’s not that easy” before they had a chance to skip the ad, had gained almost sev­en mil­lion dai­ly active users, and their free plu­g­in for Google’s web brows­er Chrome had been down­loaded over ten mil­lion times. […] 


the shallows nicholas carr.jpg

In his book The Shal­lows: What the Inter­net is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr described how the reduc­tion in size and depth of media dis­trib­uted over the inter­net and accessed under the severe pres­sures on our atten­tion that had already become com­mon were “remap­ping the neur­al cir­cuit­ry” of our brains in a way that made it more dif­fi­cult and less plea­sur­able to engage with longer or more detailed texts (2010). One does not need to adopt such a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly deter­min­ist posi­tion to be alarmed at the ways that our rela­tion­ship to dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies may be exac­er­bat­ing a cri­sis of actu­al lit­er­a­cy, more in rela­tion to read­ing than writ­ing, that serves to obscure our rela­tion­ship to cru­cial infor­ma­tion relat­ing to mat­ters of col­lec­tive wellbeing. 

Our rela­tion­ship to numer­a­cy is not much bet­ter. Dur­ing the U.S. 2020 race to be the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, jour­nal­ist Meki­ta Rivas claimed that since bil­lion­aire can­di­date Michael Bloomberg had spent over $500M of his own mon­ey on polit­i­cal adver­tis­ing, this was enough to give every­body in the Unit­ed States $1M. Rivas was way off — the actu­al amount that Bloomberg would have been able to give every mem­ber of the US pop­u­la­tion was less than two dol­lars. It’s bad math­e­mat­ics, as Rivas lat­er freely admit­ted, but an inno­cent mis­take, and it’s easy to under­stand how one rushed jour­nal­ist under pres­sure to com­mand the atten­tion and clicks of ever more fick­le audi­ences might get momen­tar­i­ly con­fused. Much more con­cern­ing was the way that this claim was ampli­fied by sev­er­al oth­er jour­nal­ists with­out any attempt to use their own basic numer­a­cy to ver­i­fy it. The vet­er­an US news anchor Bri­an Williams, for exam­ple, while host­ing his own show on net­work MSNBC, actu­al­ly read Rivas’s tweet out loud to view­ers after it was men­tioned uncrit­i­cal­ly on his show by fel­low jour­nal­ist Maya Gray, appear­ing to do the “cal­cu­la­tion” and play­ful­ly say­ing to the audi­ences at home “don’t tell us if you’re ahead of us on the math.” When in his book We the Media jour­nal­ist Dan Gill­mor said of the audi­ences he wrote for that “my read­ers know more than I do,” this was prob­a­bly not the dystopi­an state of affairs he had in mind. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, in the run-up to the 2019 UK gen­er­al elec­tion, the Labour Par­ty announced a pol­i­cy where­by those earn­ing more than £80,000 per annum or more — rough­ly the top 5% of earn­ers — would be taxed slight­ly more. Dur­ing an air­ing of the BBC ques­tion-and-answer cur­rent affairs pro­gramme Ques­tion Time, one mem­ber of the audi­ence chal­lenged the MP rep­re­sent­ing of Labour Par­ty, Richard Bur­gon, by say­ing that Labour Par­ty mem­bers were “liars” for say­ing that those earn­ing over that fig­ure were in the top 5%, also accus­ing them of con­spir­ing to “go after” salary earn­ers instead of bil­lion­aires because they were “easy mon­ey.” The data in this case are eas­i­ly obtained from offi­cial sources: the thresh­old at which one would have entered Britain’s top 5% of earn­ers was actu­al­ly slight­ly below the fig­ure named by Labour, at £76,800 per annum. What­ev­er you think of the pol­i­cy itself, the num­bers are com­plete­ly unam­bigu­ous — this was at that time the annu­al income at which a per­son would move into the top 5% of earn­ers, so assum­ing the man in ques­tion was telling the truth about his income, he was com­fort­ably in the top 5%. Per­cent­ages are taught ear­ly in sec­ondary school­ing. But noth­ing Bur­gon could say made any dif­fer­ence, and his attempts to polite­ly cor­rect the man only met with groans from the audi­ence. Worst of all, noth­ing about this exchange was enough to prompt the BBC anchor chair­ing the so-called “debate”, Fiona Bruce, from putting the mat­ter to rest and ensur­ing the accu­ra­cy of the pro­gram. In fact, the BBC lat­er dis­trib­uted a clip of this exchange on the Twit­ter account con­nect­ed to that pro­gram with no accom­pa­ny­ing caveat or fact-check­ing what­so­ev­er, as a result of which it received more than 2,000 retweets and near­ly 10,000 “likes”. Besides the seri­ous lapse of edi­to­r­i­al judg­ment in shar­ing it in this way, the utter dom­i­nance in this encounter of poor numer­a­cy skills shout­ed angri­ly over rea­soned argu­ment, and the way that these like­ly harmed the pub­lic’s com­pre­hen­sion of an impor­tant pol­i­cy debate, are also essen­tial to under­stand­ing the per­sis­tence of mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion that should the­o­ret­i­cal­ly be easy to disprove. 

Lit­er­a­cy About the World Around Us 

It should already be clear that the prob­lem of lit­er­a­cy goes much fur­ther than basic read­ing, writ­ing and a rudi­men­ta­ry grasp of num­bers, and also man­i­fests in much thick­er, more polit­i­cal­ly impor­tant ways as a kind of igno­rance — again, not in a pejo­ra­tive sense. Where­as igno­rance is the absence of knowl­edge or infor­ma­tion, this sense of illit­er­a­cy is a spe­cif­ic kind of igno­rance that relates not to infor­ma­tion or facts, but to a deep­er under­stand­ing (or lack there­of) of how the world works. Texts do not just allow us to see snap­shots of the world as they are or were, but pro­vide us with an insight as to ten­den­cies, direc­tions and plau­si­bil­i­ty. A per­son who is high­ly lit­er­ate in the works of Shake­speare is not just famil­iar with the con­tent of those works, but also with the ways Shake­speare wrote and con­struct­ed the world. A per­son who is lit­er­ate with the social net­work Insta­gram like­wise has a deep­er under­stand­ing of how it func­tions, and is flu­ent­ly able to nav­i­gate it in a nuanced and instinc­tive way. The same idea can be applied to how we under­stand the world around us, whether sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly or in some oth­er sense. 

Once again, as with basic lit­er­a­cy, the lack of this form of lit­er­a­cy is a prob­lem that affects every­one and can­not be indi­vid­u­al­ized. To do so is exact­ly what the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety we have built most wants: not only will we com­pete with each oth­er, but indi­vid­u­al­ized and frag­ment­ed under­stand­ings of the world are at least part of what hin­ders our eman­ci­pa­tion from that soci­ety. We all need as rich­ly-devel­oped an under­stand­ing of the world around us as pos­si­ble — a world, let us remem­ber, that con­tains burn­ing forests, nation­al­ist lead­ers, pan­demics, oceans full of plas­tic, and in which one in ten human beings does not have access to clean drink­ing water.

The struc­tur­al denial of this lit­er­a­cy to one per­son is a depri­va­tion to every­one, because we are depen­dent on each oth­er to under­stand the world and respond appropriately. 

As in the case of the audi­ence mem­ber on Ques­tion Time, even when we are just talk­ing about writ­ing and numer­i­cal skills, these skills facil­i­tate and sup­port our under­stand­ing of the social and polit­i­cal — the words and num­bers we use sup­port a broad­er under­stand­ing of the world that we need in order to func­tion and make deci­sions — an under­stand­ing that is sore­ly lack­ing, and seems to have dete­ri­o­rat­ed as part of the post-war sto­ry that we encoun­tered in the first chap­ter. Indeed, the US polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Thomas E. Pat­ter­son tells us that:

“In the peri­od after World War II, stud­ies showed an upward trend in cit­i­zens’ aware­ness of pub­lic affairs. The trend line is no longer ris­ing. Today’s cit­i­zens have a poor­er under­stand­ing of some top­ics than even their coun­ter­parts of six decades ago, when the typ­i­cal adult had only a grade- school education.”

This decline in the stan­dards of under­stand­ing is almost cer­tain­ly relat­ed direct­ly to the capac­i­ty for any form of dis­in­for­ma­tion to spread. The world in which 7% of US adults believe that choco­late milk comes from brown cows, as report­ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post, is the same world where those who crit­i­cize “cul­tur­al Marx­ists” have not read even a line of Karl Marx; where those who attack Islam do not know what is actu­al­ly in the Qur’an or what prayers are said by Mus­lims; where those who assem­ble to “pro­tect” a stat­ue of Win­ston Churchill per­form Nazi salutes while doing so; where the major­i­ty of those who attack the Euro­pean Union can­not name or describe a sin­gle one of its insti­tu­tions; where those who posit a flat Earth do not know (or care) what grav­i­ty is; where those who avoid vac­cines or stock­pile antibac­te­r­i­al sup­plies dur­ing a viral pan­dem­ic do not actu­al­ly know what a virus is. 

These kinds of illit­er­a­cy can man­i­fest in incred­i­bly seri­ous and dan­ger­ous ways, one exam­ple being the measles out­breaks around the world that have arisen because of anti-vac­ci­na­tion con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, or anoth­er being the fact that the night the Unit­ed King­dom vot­ed to leave the Euro­pean Union in 2016, thou­sands of peo­ple used Google to ask, “what is the EU?” and “what is Brexit?” 

Dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, those peo­ple who attacked 5G equip­ment and inno­cent broad­band engi­neers going about their jobs in the belief that 5G was the under­ly­ing cause were large­ly unaware of the dif­fer­ence between ion­iz­ing and non-ion­iz­ing radi­a­tion — some­thing that may sound high­ly tech­ni­cal, but is taught in the physics cur­ricu­lum of most UK sec­ondary schools. Yet when it comes to actu­al­ly pro­tect­ing pub­lic health, this knowl­edge fails to make itself use­ful. Anti-5G agi­ta­tors recy­cle a lot of the same para­noia about elec­tro-mag­net­ic radi­a­tion from mobile phones that greet­ed pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of cel­lu­lar data tech­nol­o­gy. The dif­fer­ence with 5G is that the anten­nae are much more vis­i­ble in pub­lic space because the tech­nol­o­gy uses a much short­er range than pre­vi­ous cel­lu­lar tech­nolo­gies, invit­ing more atten­tion. The peo­ple who pushed cocaine, hydrox­y­chloro­quine, nanosil­ver par­ti­cle tooth­paste, and oth­er false cures for COVID-19 not only obscured the harms that some of these sub­stances could do to the body — they fre­quent­ly also did so because of an aver­sion to vac­cines that was not based on any under­stand­ing of how vac­cines work. 

Lest it seem like these obser­va­tions are a rebuke to the unem­pow­ered major­i­ty, to which those who have been most deprived of for­mal edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties gen­er­al­ly belong, it should be stressed that these forms of illit­er­a­cy are also com­mon with­in the insti­tu­tions of pow­er. For exam­ple, in Feb­ru­ary 2015, Okla­homa Sen­a­tor James Inhofe brought a snow­ball to the floor of the US sen­ate in a bid to try to refute the fact that 2014 had at that time been the warmest year on record. Prob­a­bly the most promi­nent exam­ple of this is Don­ald Trump, who also fre­quent­ly made this claim. In Jan­u­ary 2019, for exam­ple, as the US was bat­tered by snow­storms and plung­ing tem­per­a­tures, Trump even tweet­ed “What the hell is going on with Glob­al Warm­ing? Please come back fast, we need you!” 

For any­one famil­iar with even the basics of what cli­mate change involves, the exis­tence of extreme cold weath­er does not refute the sci­ence of cli­mate change for even a sec­ond. If any­thing, it adds weight to the con­clu­sion of many cli­mate sci­en­tists that cli­mate change involves a more extreme cli­mate, not just an over­all warm­ing of a few degrees. “Even in a warm­ing cli­mate, you still expect to get extreme and some­times record lows occur­ring — they’ll just be occur­ring less frequently,“Andrew Dessler, a pro­fes­sor of atmos­pher­ic sci­ences at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty, told the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Reports that say that some­thing has­n’t hap­pened are always inter­est­ing to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks through­out the his­to­ry of our coun­try and oth­er free coun­tries, it is the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry that tends to be the dif­fi­cult ones.

— Don­ald Rumsfeld

These dis­plays of stag­ger­ing igno­rance and illit­er­a­cy are exam­ples of a the­o­ry that has come to be known as the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect — accord­ing to which, we tend to be unaware of the lim­i­ta­tions of our own com­pre­hen­sion. Though this the­o­ry is quite spe­cif­ic in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, it sug­gests a more gen­er­al prin­ci­ple that the more lim­it­ed our under­stand­ing of the world, the more like­ly we are to assume we have under­stood every­thing. Any­one who has ever taught in high­er edu­ca­tion will also have observed the obverse effect: those stu­dents who are most able and most thor­ough in their work are fre­quent­ly the ones who are most like­ly to ques­tion them­selves. Part of what good teach­ers try to instil is the bal­ance between hav­ing con­fi­dence in one’s ideas and crit­i­cal dis­tance from them. But this strug­gle takes place against a back­drop out­side the class­room in which every­thing is always being sim­pli­fied and reduced. 

French philoso­pher Jean Bau­drillard called this ten­den­cy to sim­pli­fy every­thing while we try and make mean­ing out of it “negen­tropy” (short for “neg­a­tive entropy”), a con­cept bor­rowed from physics he men­tions in his book Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion. Where­as “entropy” is the ten­den­cy for a sys­tem to degrade into chaot­ic ran­dom­ness, “negen­tropy” is the ten­den­cy for a noisy, chaot­ic sys­tem to reduce into increas­ing­ly sim­ple terms. For infor­ma­tion, this means reduc­tive either-or argu­ments, lost nuance, fixed sys­tems of unwork­able cat­e­gories, and false causality. 

In some ways, this ten­den­cy is a response to the iron­ic fact that despite all the dis­tor­tions of what we can col­lec­tive­ly know about the world, we are awash with use­less infor­ma­tion. There is an addi­tion­al irony in the fact that while low lit­er­a­cy about com­plex issues and sys­tems may lead us to strug­gle to under­stand them due a deficit, it also neg­a­tive­ly impacts our abil­i­ty to deal with a large amount of con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion, as the Ital­ian chemist Ugo Bar­di has argued, call­ing the strate­gic use of this dys­func­tion “unpro­pa­gan­da”.

Breaking through paywalls isn't child's play.

Break­ing through pay­walls isn’t child’s play.

There is also an urgent issue with the actu­al avail­abil­i­ty of the kinds of infor­ma­tion that could oth­er­wise help publics to be more informed: the eye-water­ing price tags and aggres­sive pay­walls that accom­pa­ny even tem­po­rary access to a sin­gle peer-reviewed aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal arti­cle. To access a sin­gle, stan­dard arti­cle in the aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal Cyberpsy­chol­o­gy, Behav­ior, and Social Net­work­ing, for exam­ple, costs $59 at the time of writ­ing. Enough to feed sev­er­al peo­ple. The jour­nal­ist George Mon­biot wrote in 2011 of the ways that, as he put it, aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ers “make Rupert Mur­doch look like a social­ist.”  Sci­en­tif­ic and oth­er pro­fes­sion­al­ly-pro­duced knowl­edge, where it has not been pro­duced by a think tank, often takes place at uni­ver­si­ties, which are pub­licly fund­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Europe. But pub­lish­ers often charge those same uni­ver­si­ties, and that same pub­lic, exor­bi­tant amounts to actu­al­ly access research for which they have already paid once. Mon­biot gives the fig­ure of near­ly $21,000 as the price of access­ing a sin­gle jour­nal pub­lished by Else­vi­er, the world’s largest pub­lish­er of aca­d­e­m­ic research. But in 2019 the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia decid­ed not to renew a sub­scrip­tion worth $10M with the same com­pa­ny. Aca­d­e­m­ic research as it is cur­rent­ly prac­tised has numer­ous prob­lems — not least the pri­ma­cy of these jour­nals and the com­pet­i­tive over­pro­duc­tion of arti­cles to fill them, many of which will have very few read­ers, but if there is any shred of intel­lec­tu­al val­ue in the work that sci­en­tists and oth­er aca­d­e­mics pub­lish in jour­nals — and to be clear, there absolute­ly is — should this not be avail­able to every­one, instead of being enclosed and pri­va­tized by a small minor­i­ty? As I argued in Chap­ter Five of my book After the Fact, The Truth About Fake News, this is sim­i­lar to the debates that are hap­pen­ing about jour­nal­ism, the dif­fer­ence being that the pub­lic has not already sub­si­dized the pro­duc­tion of that journalism.

Over­all, illit­er­a­cy is a com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted prob­lem and it is sim­plis­tic at best to make firm cause/effect state­ments about exact­ly which kinds of illit­er­a­cy are most pro­duc­tive of the over­all cri­sis of polit­i­cal­ly-use­ful infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge ana­lyzed here. But over the last few decades, as our soci­ety has been recon­fig­ured around the pri­or­i­ties of mar­kets, our lit­er­a­cy has unde­ni­ably changed too, and as pop­u­la­tions make col­lec­tive mis­takes that are crit­i­cal to their col­lec­tive well­be­ing, such as the inabil­i­ty to address cli­mate change, or the embrace of nation­al­ism in response to glob­al cap­i­tal flows, the ques­tion has to be raised as to whether a pub­lic would espouse the same ideas and polit­i­cal out­comes if for­mal­ized knowl­edge about the basics of physics or chem­istry in the first case, or Euro­pean his­to­ry in the sec­ond, were made a high­er priority.

Quan­ti­ta­tive stud­ies that have exam­ined the rela­tion­ship between lev­els of edu­ca­tion tend to find that more edu­cat­ed indi­vid­u­als are less Euroscep­tic. In the con­text of Brex­it how­ev­er, this was not quite so clear cut, and indi­vid­u­als from a wide range of edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds showed sup­port for leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, prob­a­bly because the leave vote was made up of a con­flu­ence of vot­ers with dif­fer­ent rea­sons for want­i­ng the same out­come. This should be a reminder that no mat­ter how bad­ly we want to point at our polit­i­cal oppo­nents and pro­duce a world of right and wrong, cor­rect and incor­rect, pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions take place in a much more slip­pery envi­ron­ment in which there may well be con­crete facts or for­mal­ized knowl­edge, but there are also an inor­di­nate num­ber of oth­er fac­tors com­pli­cat­ing the assump­tions and ref­er­ences on which those con­ver­sa­tions depend. 

As far as how lit­er­a­cy in the sense I’ve out­lined here relates to the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety, my argu­ment is not that the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety delib­er­ate­ly pro­duces illit­er­a­cy in this broad­er, non-lit­er­al sense. Rather, it is more along the lines of the dis­tinc­tion that bell hooks artic­u­lates in the con­text of edu­ca­tion, which can be thought of as a dif­fer­ence between “edu­ca­tion as the prac­tice of free­dom and edu­ca­tion that mere­ly strives to rein­force dom­i­na­tion.” This dis­tinc­tion can be applied not only to ped­a­gogy but to the broad­er way we think about what knowl­edge is sup­posed to be. Knowl­edge can be pas­sive or active; dead or alive; hold you back, or set you free. 

For decades, we heard enco­mia to the “knowl­edge econ­o­my” and the “infor­ma­tion soci­ety”, but lit­er­a­cy in the sub­stan­tive sense that is dis­cussed here is not par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able in the mar­ket­place, as evi­dent in the devalu­ing of human­i­ties or arts edu­ca­tion at the expense of MBAs and STEM sub­jects, and the focus on buzz­words like “enter­prise” and “inno­va­tion” in uni­ver­si­ties, rather than on fos­ter­ing a deep or eman­ci­pa­to­ry under­stand­ing of the world. In a soci­ety in which edu­ca­tion and knowl­edge are only val­ued for nar­row, mar­ket pur­pos­es and the broad­er val­ue in under­stand­ing the world is regard­ed pejo­ra­tive­ly, the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety ben­e­fits from the forms of illit­er­a­cy I have out­lined above far too much to make their alle­vi­a­tion a pri­or­i­ty. Such lit­er­a­cy would only lead to the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety being chal­lenged more open­ly and more often! It also ben­e­fits from wide­spread illit­er­a­cy about cap­i­tal which the mar­ket is of course dis­in­cen­tivized from ame­lio­rat­ing or reversing.

Ulti­mate­ly, as far as mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion, the point about illit­er­a­cy in both its lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive sense is not that it is nec­es­sar­i­ly a dri­ver, but that it rep­re­sents a seri­ous vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty for the soci­eties where it exists. First­ly, those soci­eties are left whol­ly unpre­pared to deal with the vast amount of mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion to which they are exposed, often by the mar­ket-dri­ven soci­ety, and sec­ond­ly, they are less able to chal­lenge and fix that soci­ety itself. The remark­able cre­ativ­i­ty and inge­nu­ity of human beings need not decline for our abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend and chal­lenge the sys­tems that gov­ern how we live to deteriorate. 

fake newsliteracytruth and accuracy in reporting

Marcus Gilroy-Ware is a senior lecturer in digital journalism at the School of Film and Journalism, University of the West of England. He has spoken/taught at the Media Development Centre, Birzeit University (Ramallah, Palestine), The Baitul Futuh Mosque as a guest of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (London, UK), and other campuses. Gilroy-Ware is the author of Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media (Repeater Books, 2017) and After the Fact? The Truth About Fake News, (Repeater Books, 2020).

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