Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

Working in 2016 as a technical communicator means that we have to stay on top of technology, but what I think is more specific is that we have to make sure to take a proper survey of technological advances, both personal and professional. What does this actually mean? Maybe your job doesn’t involve social media or other trends that fall outside of a cubicle. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it in your job.

Digital literacy in the modern era is something that has to be cultivated and developed by current technical communicators. Professional organizations like the Society for Technical Communication do their best to connect practitioners, teach best practices and techniques, inform the public about the critical role of technical communicators, and establish a baseline for the field, a field that depends so much on who takes part and how technology will grow to meet the needs of users, those anticipated and those yet to be determined.


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Based on my personal journey, I can tell you that I had no idea what a technical communicator was before being approached by my previous employer for a Technical Editor position. I had worked as a writer and editor with work experience in magazine and newspaper publishing. The basic skills transferred, but there was a different way of thinking about the content and working with it that I had to learn on the job. My experience there was based on mentorship and learning as I went. We used technologically on a very basic level (working as a government contractor with technology years behind the times definitely did not contribute to my digital literacy) and had no digital tools for learning or analysis.

Working in this field means being willing and able to embrace change and build connections between disciplines and schools of thought that have their own unique structures. New technologies mean that any traditional idea of workspace, learning, businesses, and institutions have to evolve in order to continue competing and remaining relevant, especially to an audience that is being reared in an environment where technology is the new normal.

The schema of the modern world is such that information is deemed old within hours of its release and the news which may shock one individual does not phase the next because of the streaming coverage available to them practically wherever they happen to be at the time. The age in which verbal communication and oral storytelling were the be all and end all of knowledge gathering has long since passed and now, everything is shared at lightning speeds through shortened statements and improper sentences online and over the air. Literacy in this sense, means being able to access the forms of information sharing and collection that would permit a person to be active in their society and have awareness of the occurrences going on around them. And at this stage, the definition of literacy has already been ruptured beyond its basic level.

Personally, the advent of the Internet and emerging technology has made it easier than ever to communicate their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and ideas with a global audience. Given the fact that I work in the writing and editing field, I find it important to keep a close eye on how that has been affected by this trend. “Writing and editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators. However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored” (Pilka pg. 54). Working overseas, sending work out to freelancers and contract temps so that corporate can continue to meet its bottom line without investing too much in one of the critical areas in establishing and maintaining an appropriate presence.

It also matters a great deal to both me and to the field at large because of the ever increasing globalization effect that technology has. What worked in the past and what is working now to bind us together has made us more aware of our international partners. It has also made it more apparent that we have become reliant on the very technology that most take for granted nowadays. Utilizing technology at work and in the classroom is a prerequisite in the developed world and is looked on as lacking in third world countries and developing nations. Employees find themselves either without the latest and greatest technologies to draw upon or thrust into the deep end, developing content and creating standards for an evolving and shifting pool of apps, software, hardware, and devices most of which do not have any rules and regulations set in stone.

Posted on September 25, 2016, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is a great post. I can certainly empathize when you talk about technology and working for the government. For the last 4+ years I have been a government employee and our access to technology leaves a lot to be desired. In my department, we are not allowed to use Facebook or Twitter to promote our services or events to the community. The county board of supervisors feel that if employees are given access to social media sites for work purposes, they will use county time to manage their own social media accounts. As though employees can’t already access their Facebook from their phones.

    In another example of the county’s notorious resistance to “getting with the times,” I recently was a part of a fellowship program as an extension to my position. The program was a 16-week fellowship that required weekly video conferences to check in with our team and mentors. I was required to use Zoom video conferencing and of course needed a webcam. It took weeks to get clearance to have a webcam installed. I had to sign all this documentation and went through levels of explanation as to why exactly I needed access to video conferencing capabilities.

  2. I like your point about globalization. Our world got a lot smaller, not only because of the internet, but with the fact that computers and wifi devices are a common accessory for nearly all people. Not only can we sell product worldwide, but we can easily and quickly communicate with people worldwide. As you mention, third world countries don’t have the access that the rest of the world does, but that too is progressing. I have friends who are missionaries. While they’re off the grid much of the time, they do have regular access to email and Facebook. It’s enough to keep the rest of us up to date on their activities.

  3. I agree with your view about technical communicators jobs “being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored.” However, there are also many tech companies who value an experienced technical writer/designer/communicator who can both write and provide knowledgeable input throughout the process. I, too, didn’t know anything about this field, even though my job title is “technical writer.” I realized that I have been a technical writer for quite a number of years just in different capacities.

    The Digital Literacy graphic highlights the perspectives and aspects of what the term means. This will likely increase as technology expands and we adapt.

  4. Excellent post, Lloyd, and I think your peers have noted the many reasons why already! Sometimes in this course I’ve had a student who was the only “tech writer” for their company, but others work like you describe, as freelancers who switch hats depending on their client. Every workplace is different but the tech writer can bridge the gaps.

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