First Monday

Transliteracy: Crossing divides by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger

Transliteracy might provide a unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the twenty–first century. It is not a new behavior but has only been identified as a working concept since the Internet generated new ways of thinking about human communication. This article defines transliteracy as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” and opens the debate with examples from history, orality, philosophy, literature, and ethnography.


What is transliteracy?
Tracing transliteracy
Really new media
Writing and reading are not enough
Going across and beyond
Networking the book
Transliterate reading
Everyday life in a transliterate world
Future development and debate




When I look straight forward I can see that I’m flying. I have a dramatic pair of bat wings but they don’t help me fly; they just look neat. When I focus on what I can hear, though, it is a radio and it is broadcasting a debate about whether David Beckham should change his mind about moving to the United States of America to play football [1]. If I listen really carefully, I can hear the fan of my computer and a cat breathing as it sleeps. In front of me, to my right and left are shelves of books, a digital camera, mp3 player and a cup of coffee. There’s a newspaper on the table to my left and, somewhere outside, it sounds as if a group of students are discussing Big Brother. This is my world and it’s probably not that dissimilar to yours, gentle reader — if “reader” is an appropriate term for who you are.

We live in a world of multiple literacies, multiple media and multiple demands on our attention. Each of these is complete in itself yet we do not experience them individually, we synthesize and mould them to our needs. Each of us, every day, is involved in staggering acts of comprehension and production. It’s only a few thousand years since we sat around fires, telling stories to hold back the night using nothing more than sound and gesture. What we do now may draw on technologies that could not have been predicted even a few generations ago yet, we argue, what we do now is not fundamentally different from what we did then. In this article, we explore a new concept — “transliteracy” — which is both very old and brand new and may help us shed light on how we, as human beings, communicate. To do so we are going to tear literacy away from its original association with the medium of written text and apply it as a term that can refer to any kind of medium. And then we’re going to go across and beyond literacy to transliteracy.



What is transliteracy?

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

As a behavior, it is not new — indeed it reaches back to the very beginning of culture — but it has only been identified as a working concept since the Internet allowed humans to communicate in ways which seem to be entirely novel. As a notion, it grew to fruition during discussions among the Production and Research in Transliteracy (PART) Group at the Institute of Creative Technologies (IOCT), De Montfort University. It is a good example of open source thinking between diverse collaborators, and in this article we offer up the idea of transliteracy for further development.

The word ‘transliteracy’ is derived from the verb ‘to transliterate’, meaning to write or print a letter or word using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language. This of course is nothing new, but transliteracy extends the act of transliteration and applies it to the increasingly wide range of communication platforms and tools at our disposal. From early signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV and film to networked digital media, the concept of transliteracy calls for a change of perspective away from the battles over print versus digital, and a move instead towards a unifying ecology not just of media, but of all literacies relevant to reading, writing, interaction and culture, both past and present. It is, we hope, an opportunity to cross some very obstructive divides.

Our use of the term transliteracy is pre–dated by the plural ‘transliteracies’, which evolved at the Transcriptions Research Project directed by Professor Alan Liu in the Department of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara [2]. In 2005, Liu developed and formalized the Transliteracies Project, researching technological, social, and cultural practices of online reading. Sue Thomas attended the first Transliteracies conference and came away inspired to develop her own understanding of transliteracy in its broadest sense [3]. As a result, the Production and Research in Transliteracy (PART) group was formed in 2006. PART is a small group of researchers based in the Faculty of Humanities but researching in the Institute of Creative Technologies. The IOCT, which opened in 2006, undertakes research work in emerging areas at the intersection of e–Science, the Digital Arts, and Humanities. It comprises an interdisciplinary laboratory at the heart of an infrastructure grid connecting significant research centers across the university and providing a faculty–neutral space for the development of transdisciplinary projects. It is, therefore, the ideal cultural medium for transliterate practice. As well as analyzing transliteracy in general terms, the PART group also observes, responds to, and advises transdisciplinary projects within the IOCT, where the concept has become embedded in the discourse of the Institute.

Everyone in the PART group has worked closely with writing, computers and the Internet for various lengths of time, several of us for over twenty years. We have been deeply engaged with questions about the impact of computers on literacy (and upon the literary). Is the Internet really changing the ways in which we read, write, and think? Is the book truly dead? Is anything being lost in the frantic rush to get online? What has happened to the idea of literary value?

Many people seem to feel that they should have a preference between the analogue and the digital, as if the situation really were so polarized. For example, in 2005 English literary critic Mark Lawson revealed his high state of anxiety about the Web on BBC TV when, whilst interviewing Tim Berners–Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, he referred repeatedly to pornography, identity theft and commercialism, exclaiming “Because of your invention, I was able to look up every article written by or about you quickly and easily. But at the same time, I was sent several unsolicited links to porn sites. I have to accept that someone in Mexico may have stolen my identity and now be using it. Is the latter absolutely worth paying for the former?” [4] And in 2007, in an article for The Observer, Nick Cohen — a columnist asked to be a judge on the “Blooker Prize” [5] — reflected largely positively on blogs and publishing on demand until he felt compelled to note that the Internet “allows millions to drone on in blogs that no one but their friends will read” (Cohen, 2007). Why did he choose to use the pejorative word “drone”? What is wrong about writing something only your friends will read? In a transliterate world, when the blog says “publish” does it really mean what Nick Cohen appears to believe it means? Do the connotations of the command to publish with its obvious appeal to the medium of print and the publishing industry really mean the same thing when applied to a blog entry that may have only been written for friends and family?


Figure 1: 1 Image of a publish button from the blogspot interface

Figure 1: 1 Image of a “publish button” from the blogspot interface.


We hope that the notion of transliteracy might allow us to get beyond some of these endlessly circular arguments. However, even within this small group there are differing views on the nature of transliteracy, and our private discussions have only served to generate more internal debate. For example, we have no agreement on how transliteracy situates itself within or apart from cultural and communications studies, and we have not decided whether it is a practice, or a way of analyzing practice, or both. These issues have been set aside for future articles and will not be addressed here.



Tracing transliteracy

An ongoing debate within the group focuses on the ways in which transliteracy differentiates itself from “media literacy”, defined by Ofcom as “the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts” (Ofcom, 2003). Our current thinking (although still not entirely resolved) is that because it offers a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, “media literacy” and also “digital literacy.” [6] “Convergence” is another term which has become widely used, especially by the media and gaming worlds, but it is enormously broad. In 2001 MIT scholar Henry Jenkins wrote: “Part of the confusion about media convergence stems from the fact that when people talk about it, they’re actually describing at least five processes” (Jenkins, 2001). He lists these types of convergence as technological, economic, social or organic, cultural, and global, concluding that “these multiple forms of media convergence are leading us toward a digital renaissance — a period of transition and transformation that will affect all aspects of our lives” (Jenkins, 2001). Transliteracy is, perhaps, the literacy of this process. However, it is important to note that transliteracy is not just about computer–based materials, but about all communication types across time and culture. It does not privilege one above the other but treats all as of equal value and moves between and across them.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan saw the process Jenkins describes as occurring increasingly via technology, proposing that “in this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving towards the technological extension of consciousness.” [7] Walter Ong, writing in 1982 about the relationship between literacy and orality, also approached the matter from the point of view of linear progressive change: “The shift from orality to literacy and on to electronic processing engages social, economic, political, religious and other structures.” [8] The concept of media ecology developed by McLuhan, Ong, Postman and others is certainly closely related to transliteracy. The difference lies in transliteracy’s insistence upon a lateral approach to history, context and culture, its interest in lived experience, and its focus on interpretation via practice and production. It is characteristic of our deliberations that we do not view digital media as part of a linear historical progression, but see them as manifestations of other similar modes of communication. In our view, the ecology of transliteracy is both global and historical.

Social media critic Howard Rheingold is Visiting Professor at the IOCT and a non–resident member of PART. His work on the history of cooperation is useful in elucidating a context for transliteracy. In Technologies of Cooperation, he speculates on the nature of the very earliest collectives:

Humans lived as hunter–gatherers in small, extended family units long before they lived in agricultural settlements. For most of that time, small game and gathered foods constituted the most significant form of wealth — enough food to stay alive. At some point, larger groups figured out how to band together to hunt bigger game. We don’t know exactly how they figured this out, but it’s a good guess that some form of communication was involved, and however they did it, their banding–together process must have solved collective–action problems in some way: our mastodon–hunting ancestors must have found ways to suspend mistrust and strict self–interest long enough to cooperate for the benefit of all. It is unlikely that unrelated groups would be able to accomplish huge game hunting while also fighting with each other. [9]

Eventually, around forty thousand years ago, there was enough leisure time for such communities to record their activities on the walls of their caves. And just five thousand years ago, they began to write: “The first forms of writing appeared as a means of accounting for the exchange of commodities such as wine, wheat, or sheep — and the taxation of this wealth by the empire. The master practitioners of the new medium of marks on clay or stone were the accountants for the emperors and their priest–administrators. When writing became alphabetic (claims McLuhan), an altogether new kind of empire, the Roman Empire, became possible.

Across this long stretch of cultural time, five million years of human communication, the privileging of reading and writing as primary defining literacies begins to seem somewhat out of scale. As Rheingold writes: “[w]hat we are witnessing today is [thus] the acceleration of a trend that has been building for thousands of years. When technologies like alphabets and Internets amplify the right cognitive or social capabilities, old trends take new twists and people build things that never could be built before.”



Really new media

Some kinds of media certainly do seem to be entirely new. In February 2007, Kate Pullinger and Sue Thomas, with their students on the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University, collaborated with Penguin Books on the innovative Million Penguins Wikinovel project [10]. Described as “a global experiment in new media writing,” [11] it is a collaboratively written fiction in which anyone could contribute to a text and also edit the work of others, producing an evolving piece of writing supplemented by a vast document history of previous changes. By the end of the experiment 80,000 unique visitors had viewed a work which had grown to over 50,000 words and which had been written, edited, spammed and vandalized by 1,500 people (Ettinghausen, 2007a). Penguin Digital Publisher Jeremy Ettinghausen wrote at the opening of the wiki: “The buzz these days is all about the network, the small pieces loosely joined. About how the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. About how working together and joining the dots serves the greater good and benefits our collective endeavors.” (Ettinghausen, 2007b) It was clear from early on that the success of A Million Penguins lay not in the literary quality of the ‘novel’ (which was agreed to be variable, to say the least) but in the generation of a smart mob (to use Rheingold’s term) of largely anonymous authors and editors who came out of nowhere within hours of the project’s launch and worked together intensively for a month to grow something creative from the blank screen of an empty wiki. Developed by Ward Cunningham in 1994, the wiki gave rise to a genuinely new form of collective literary behavior which has no historical parallel and which only became possible via recent technological innovation.

Transliteracy is an inclusive concept which bridges and connects past, present and, hopefully, future modalities. The chitchat of a blog is not dissimilar to campfire stories after a day’s hunting, and the auction fever of eBay is not unlike the haggling that went on in an Iron Age marketplace. The literacies (digital, numerate, oral) may be different, but the transliteracies (social, economic, political) often transect them in similar ways, depending on cultural context. For example, in recent years we have begun to switch from searching for information in encyclopedias, indices and catalogues to querying the kinds of data collections that existed before books — that is to say, we are asking each other. Via millions of message boards and chatrooms we ask each other for advice about health problems, moral dilemmas, or what to cook for dinner. We share those answers, elaborate upon them, and, in so doing, we aggregate them so that others unknown to us can use them. As Bush and Tiwana write: “[u]nlike knowledge repositories, which follow a people–to–documents model, knowledge networks are inherently people–to–people.” [12] Today, even large corporations are recognizing that knowledge which cannot easily be classified or stored can often be accessed via individuals and then synthesized through peer–to–peer networks and conversations.

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler suggests that past technologies have always involved a change in our phenomenological experience of the world. Transliteracy engages with new innovations in participatory media even as it recognizes that part of what such media enables is a recovery of an older plurality of literacies with possibly ancient provenances. Stiegler’s work draws attention to the degree to which theorizing about technology is often polarized between anxiety and euphoria. His response is to refuse to distance technology from life; and to suggest that human individuation and technology have always had a transductive relationship. Our sense of transliteracy is informed by such a relationship.

However, despite these recovered practices, textual literacy has become so ingrained in Western society that it has reached the point of invisibility. But humans have only been using reading and writing for a very short time in our history, so how else do we communicate? Transliteracy pays attention to the whole range of modes and to the synergies between them to produce a sense of a ‘transliterate lifeworld’ in constant process. A lifeworld is the combination of physical environment and subjective experience that makes up everyday life. Each individual’s lifeworld is personal to them, as Agre and Horswill describe:

Cats and people, for example, can be understood as inhabiting the same physical environment but different lifeworlds. Kitchen cupboards, window sills, and the spaces underneath chairs have different significances for cats and people, as do balls of yarn, upholstery, television sets, and other cats. Similarly, a kitchen affords a different kind of lifeworld to a chef than to a mechanic, though clearly these two lifeworlds may overlap in some ways as well. A lifeworld, then, is not just a physical environment, but the patterned ways in which a physical environment is functionally meaningful within some activity. [13]

The transliterate lifeworld is highly subjective, diverse and complicated. It is not one kind of place, but many — an ecology which changes with the invention of each new media–type. Yet a story is always still a story, whether it’s told whilst walking down the street, printed in a book, or twittered across the Internet.

So what are the “patterned ways” of the complex lifeworld of transliteracy and how are they meaningful? Transliteracy happens in the places where different things meet, mix, and rub together. It is an interstitial space teeming with diverse life–forms, some on the rise, some in decline, expressed in many languages in many voices, many kinds of scripts and media. It is a world where print has a place, but not the only place.



Writing and reading are not enough

The philosopher Socrates, who eschewed learning to read and write in a culture where such practices were unusual, believed that the fixed nature of writing limits thought and enquiry. In The Phaedrus we read that in 370BC Socrates asserted writing was an aid “not to memory, but to reminiscence” providing “not truth, but only the semblance of truth.” Readers would, he said, “be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” [14]

It is interesting to place Socrates’ complaints about reading and writing alongside the charge of graphocentrism currently being leveled at Western agencies engaged in trying to colonize societies such as those found in the Brazilian rainforests. Marilda Cavalcanti writing about the Brazilian rain forest Asheninka tribe observes:

... the Asheninka traditional form of education (includes) planting rituals (and) living in communion with nature [...] school and schooling are thus just (a small) part of the whole discussion on public policies. [...] As the indigenous teachers say all the time, they are teachers full time, all day long wherever they are. They go hunting and fishing with their students and their families. [15]

The Asheninka recognize the importance of literacy but not its supremacy, and just as Socrates assigned the task of writing down his words to Plato, so the Asheninka assign the use of literacy to certain nominated individuals:

As our traditional system of life does not internally depend on writing, we are educating just a few people to make contact with other societies. We are also educating teacher researchers to record our history, to get them involved in our present political organisation, to get them to help us maintain the cultural world of the people, making the old and young people aware and opening up an issue of reflection about writing so that we don’t override our culture. Through school, we also work with drawings and maps regarding territorial control because for us it’s new to work within a delimited territory. [16]

The reference to territories correlates with eco–philosopher David Abram’s explanation of the Dreaming songs of Australian aborigines and of their connection to actual features of the landscape. These stories are inextricably linked to specific locations providing, Abram suggests, “an auditory mnemonic (or memory tool) — an oral means of recalling viable routes through an often harsh terrain,” in which “just as the song structure carries the memory of how to orient in the land, so the sight of particular features in the land activates the memory of specific songs and stories.” [17] Robert Lawlor (2007) writes that:

In the Aboriginal world view, every meaningful activity, event, or life process that occurs at a particular place leaves behind a vibrational residue in the earth, as plants leave an image of themselves as seeds. The shape of the land — its mountains, rocks, riverbeds, and waterholes — and its unseen vibrations echo the events that brought that place into creation. Everything in the natural world is a symbolic footprint of the metaphysical beings whose actions created our world. As with a seed, the potency of an earthly location is wedded to the memory of its origin.

Abram adds:

Given this radical interdependence between the spoken stories and the sensible landscape, the ethnographic practice of writing down oral stories and disseminating them in published form, must be seen as a peculiar form of violence, wherein the stories are torn from the visible landforms and topographic features that materially embody and provoke them. [18]

Today we still exercise that “peculiar form of violence” in, for example, annotating and mashing up Google maps to achieve similar topographical connections with stories. In the transliterate lifeworld, a Flickr image is understood not as an isolated event but in conjunction with the user’s knowledge about what a Flickr page is; what prompted that person to post it, and why 16 people left comments. It’s not just a photo–collecting technology, but the equivalent of the tree in a Dreamtime story — another kind of “sensible landscape” marked with “vibrational residues” which the transliterate user can pick up and “read”.



Going across and beyond

Since Sue Thomas arrived at the term ‘transliteracy’ there has been much discussion within PART about whether the ‘trans’ prefix is there to signify a going ‘beyond’, or a moving ‘across’. Certainly to think in terms of the latter is immediately to acknowledge that we are talking about literacies plural — otherwise there would be no necessity to move across. A visual metaphor for the liminal qualities of transliteracy we are trying to articulate here can be found in the following image from the British poet and collagist Alan Halsey (2005).


Figure 2: This Problem of Script by Alan Halsey

Figure 2: “This Problem of Script” by Alan Halsey.


The title of the series this plate comes from also serves our purpose: this work is called “This Problem of Script: Essays in textual analysis” (Halsey, 2005) and therefore overtly references the hegemony of print–based literacy whilst at the same time challenging it in the images that make up the essay. What makes the image a useful analogy to the experience of transliteracy is our inability to rest in it; our inability to focus and establish an anchor; to resolve the problem of script by isolating a hierarchy of discourse that will enable us to prioritize one level of representation over another in order to make sense of the piece. Do we read it left to right? Up or down? Top to bottom? And why does this work compel us to describe what we are doing as ‘reading’ in inverted commas? Halsey’s ‘essay’ is a compendium of differing types of inscription — pictographs, hieroglyphs, diagrams, maps, staves, fonts, letters, words, severed phrases — it places under re–view the primacy of fixed–print; it re–places script back into a heritage of dialogue between word, image and sound that has always been there in earlier cultures, but that has been masked by the dominance of a print–anchored literacy. As such, transliteracy is both a concept and a practice productively situated in a liminal space between being a new cognitive tool and the recovery of an old one.

The “patterned ways” of transliteracy are multiple, varied, and often physical. A sense of how it feels to hold a feather quill, chisel a stone, type on a keyboard, or take a photograph, is important and helps connect the material product — a letter, photo, etc. — to the means of production. For those fond of 2.0 expressions, perhaps this is Physicality 2.0. And then there is the issue of cognition. Behaviors hitherto seen as dysfunctional, such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and even synaesthesia, may actually be useful literacies in less textual environments like computer games (and, indeed, real life) which privilege multimodality over fixed–type print. It appears that flexibility is certainly an essential part of being transliterate. As just a small example, travel to other countries often introduces us to minor differences in cultural practices which demand constant adjustment. Although this can sometimes be stressful, it can also be enjoyable as the visitor increases their level of transliteracy in the new environment. A willingness to embrace the new might be an essential feature of transliteracy because its opposites, fear and reluctance to learn, are powerful inhibitors to the acquisition of new skills, and skills play an important role in transliterate practice. Many technologies are not new but simply innovative applications of established processes, new tools for old behaviors demanding adjustments to existing skills. As already noted, the way we converse online in chat rooms is often not dissimilar from the way we talk face to face. And a hypertext story, with its many diversions and elaborations, could be eerily similar in form to the telling of family holiday memories. There are more similarities between modes than may be at first apparent, and the technological skills involved are often simple to acquire if the user is positively inclined to attempt them.



Networking the book

Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph are two members of the PART group whose practice engages with transliteracy via writing and multimedia design. They have collaborated on several digital fiction projects, including “The Breathing Wall” (Pullinger, et al., 2004), a novel that responds to the reader’s rate of breathing, and the multi–episode online interactive novel “Inanimate Alice” (Pullinger and Joseph, 2007). While work on Alice continues, Pullinger and Joseph are embarking on a new project to create “Flight Paths”, a networked work of fiction:

I have finished my weekly supermarket shop, stocking up on provisions for my three kids, my husband, our dog and our cat. I push the loaded trolley across the car park, battling to keep its wonky wheels on track. I pop open the boot of my car and then for some reason, I have no idea why, I look up, into the clear blue autumnal sky. And I see him. It takes me a long moment to figure out what I am looking at. He is falling from the sky. A dark mass, growing larger quickly. I let go of the trolley and am dimly aware that it is getting away from me but I can’t move, I am stuck there in the middle of the supermarket car park, watching, as he hurtles toward the earth. I have no idea how long it takes — a few seconds, an entire lifetime — but I stand there holding my breath as the city goes about its business around me until ...

He crashes into the roof of my car.

The car park of Sainsbury’s supermarket in Richmond, southwest London, lies directly beneath one of the main flight paths into Heathrow Airport. Over the last decade, on at least five separate occasions, the bodies of young men have fallen from the sky and landed on or near this car park. All these men were stowaways on flights from the Indian subcontinent who had believed that they could find a way into the cargo hold of an airplane by climbing up into the airplane wheel shaft. No one can survive this journey. “Flight Paths” seeks to explore what happens when lives collide — the airplane stowaway and the fictional suburban London housewife, quoted above. This project will tell their stories; it will be a work of digital fiction, a networked book, created on and through the Internet. The project will include a Web iteration that opens up the research process to the outside world, inviting discussion of the large array of issues the project touches on. As well as this, Pullinger and Joseph will create a series of multimedia elements that will illuminate various aspects of the story. This will allow them to invite and encourage audience–generated content, opening up the project to allow other writers and artists to contribute texts — both multimedia and more traditional — images, sounds, memories, ideas. At the same time, Pullinger will write a print novel which will act as a companion piece to the project overall.

“Flight Paths” will actively engage with many of the questions that are raised by the concept of a transliterate production. Those questions include: what are the possibilities for new narrative forms? How do we “write to be seen” or “write to be heard” when creating multimedia narratives, and can we imagine writing to be smelled, tasted, felt? What are the effects of collective authorship across multiple forms? At what point does multimedia — “a combination of different media which function next to each other and remain clearly discernable” become intermedia — “an integrative combination of different media [such that] the usual frames and structure of the different media are affected and influenced by each other?” [19]

Cultural production is often analyzed from one of two perspectives:

A transliterate analysis would consider both of these, and more: for example, the shift in emphasis from static monologue to dynamic dialogue suggested by participatory narratives; the practices and politics of collaboration, particularly when many geographically and linguistically spread authors collaborate simultaneously; and the existence of a “group creativity” or “intelligence”, perhaps as an emergent property of individual creativities or intelligences.

The concept of the networked book of non–fiction is not new and there is a long history of new media fiction works that include user–generated content. But there are very few fiction projects that from the earliest, research phase attempt to harness participatory media and audience generated content in the way that “Flight Paths” will, with its sensitivity to the complex multimodal toolbox of the transliterate reader.

As we have seen, transliteracy involves being able to read, write and interact across multiple modes. It opens up a perspective on pre–digital multimodality in the same way that hypertext theorizing (e.g., Bolter, 2001; Landow, 2005) opened up a perspective on textual footnotes and indices as pre–digital hypertext. This characterization of transliteracy deliberately refuses to presuppose any kind of offline/online divide; indeed it posits a complete interpellation of one by the other within everyday life, what might be whimsically called a cultural Google Gears [20] combining both online and offline functionalities.

In 2005, the Institute for the Future of the Book (IF:book) conducted a thought experiment in which they proposed that if Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto today and posted it to the Web it would attract a global networked multimedia conversation of articles, blog posts, YouTube video, and audio podcasts. Critiques of the Manifesto could be accessed in relation to all the others instead of existing as “isolated islands which at best can reference each other but which are not connected in the way we might imagine in the networked world.” In March 2007 IF:book Director Bob Stein reported that the page for the Communist Manifesto now provides a linked citation list of 2,061 books which reference it (Stein, 2007). And that is without the accretion of all the accumulated reader comments and recommendations at Amazon. Today, on the Internet at least, the Manifesto is not just a book you can read in the bath [21] but an entire networked body of many media, including no doubt real meetings in real places, as always. And the conversation continues to grow. Indeed, the IF:book blog post, and now this article too, are part of it.



Transliterate reading

Dene Grigar’s Web fiction “Fallow Field” is another example of how the online environment naturally foregrounds multimodality (Grigar, 2004). Grigar situates the story within an agricultural scenario where digging, flowing, and cultivating signal both the plot and the reader’s procedural harvesting of the narrative. Just as the narrator swats flies and bypasses empty fields in search of succulent corn and herself, so the reader wends her way through sounds, images, words, and links. Marcus Bastos describes Grigar’s narrative approach as one where “[t]he overlapping of physical and digital, among other things, problematize the existence of clear borders or, at least, defy traditional categorizations of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’,” [22] and so too must the transliterate reader take these elements into account. Grigar’s emphasis on junctures, crossroads, and choices discourages notions of concrete conclusions by highlighting the “liminal spaces between” [23]. The how and the why, like form and content, are inextricably intertwined. The role assigned to the reader in such a fiction is an example of what we mean by transliteracy: the reader is required to understand how the aural (in the form of music, sound effects, the narrator’s voice), visual (images and text) and interactive modes function simultaneously. Without recognizing how these various modes play against and with one another the reader risks grasping only part of the plot.


Figure 3: Screen shot from Fallow Field

Figure 3: Screen shot from “Fallow Field”.


However, material does not have to be digital to be multimodal. For example, according to Cavalcanti, the culture of the Asheninka tribe is learned and passed on via an interwoven accretion of images and stories.

Everything we use has a story; each drawing has a long and comprehensive story. Each drawing which is passed from one generation to another is our writing; each little symbol has an immense story. As one learns a drawing, one learns its origin, who taught it, who brought it to us [24].

Transliteracy is, of course, inextricable from social practice, and social researchers have an influential part to play by investigating from two directions — transliteracy as a cultural phenomenon, and as a lens through which to examine society and culture. On one hand, it is the kind of literacy we require to be able to simultaneously attend to multiple media and modes of communication: the literacy of the ‘trans’. On the other, it also refers to that kind of literacy we use to apply the literacies of one mode or medium to another one: transliteration. This dual nature of transliteracy implies that it can be employed to understand communication both diachronically (over time) and synchronically (at the same time). Diachronically, it helps us understand, for example, how the practice of blogging might draw upon non–digital methods of combining modes in handwritten media or how personal blogs relates to diaries and journals. Synchronically, it can help us see how multiple media and modes of communication are used in relation to each other at the same time. As an example of the former, the image below from Time Magazine shows Al Gore sitting at his desk while surrounded by various media each of which has different modal affordances [25]. A transliterate perspective can help us understand how these modes and media relate.


Figure 4: Al Gore sitting at his desk

Figure 4: Al Gore sitting at his desk.
Source: Time,,29307,1622338_1363003,00.html.


Gore appears to be paying attention primarily to his computer but is surrounded by various non–digital media: books, flip charts, articles, a television and so on. Naturally there may be some staging involved but what we see here is something that perhaps many of us recognize from our working practices; at any time we may be able to shift attention or position in the room in order to reorient ourselves. In a blog entry about this photo, the author annotates the image and relates it to Bolter and Grusin’s notion (1999) of the “hypermediated work environment”, noting that “[t]he method in which the information is delivered changes the way we understand it,” (Übernoggin, 2007) which is to reprise the McLuhanesque assertion that the medium is the message. In this case Gore’s workspace is saturated with multiple media delivering information: even the frog on the wall can be read as a medium which conveys a message about threats to the environment [26]. A transliterate perspective encourages us to see this image holistically. Gore’s room is not hermetically sealed, presumably, so there are elements in the scene which are invisible in the still photograph: sounds from outside, smells and so on. Other people will have been in the room and traces of their activities may be relevant, even the fact that the room appears to be a sprawling, chaotic mess indicates a certain set of behaviors. Al Gore’s lifeworld may be embodied, in part, by that office: what to an outsider may seem to be disorder may well be rather more structured.



Everyday life in a transliterate world

The ways in which people manage different media and modes of communication in their everyday lives is of great interest to the transliteracy researcher. In his 1981 paper “The Ethnography of Literacy”, ethnographer John Szwed called for research into the “social meaning of literacy” on the grounds that “... the stunning fact is that we do not fully know what literacy is. The assumption that it is simply a matter of the skills of reading and writing does not even begin to approach the fundamental problem: what are reading and writing for?” [27] The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies since then has only intensified this challenge, and transliteracy encourages us to adapt Szwed’s statement and ask: what are “Reading 2.0” and “Writing 2.0” for? [28]

Writing in 1998, Bruce Mason argued that “research into computer–mediated communication (CMC) has begun to challenge much of the scholarship in the orality and literacy debate.” [29] This is not to suggest that transliteracy is restricted to Web 2.0 but, rather, to suggest that we can use the plethora of new media devices and affordances to view what might be ancient practices in a twenty–first century light. It should be possible to adapt Szwed’s call for ethnographies of literacy into an examination of “...the roles these abilities play in social life; the varieties of reading and writing available for choice; the contexts of their performance; and the manner in which they are interpreted and tested, not by experts but by ordinary people in ordinary activities.” [30] We need ethnographies of transliteracy, studies of its social, cultural and power relationships and of its networked vernacular from the perspectives of those who live and work within it.

In May 2007 the authors invited 40 people from academia, business and the arts to a Transliteracy Colloquium. Selected for their fluency with new media, we hoped they would help us open up new avenues of thought and transliteracy and its applications in their particular fields. Their feedback enabled us to expand our vision and presented us with further challenges and ideas.

For example, Microsoft National Technology Officer Jerry Fishenden observed that the digital age will change everything: “There remains much talk of a ‘digital divide’ — but we have so long grown accustomed to a world in which there is a ‘literacy divide’ it is not often mentioned. The move to the digital era could be as democratizing as the birth of the printing press was in the fifteenth century. It will bring the ability to capture and share human experiences, learning and entertainment in far more intuitive ways than the age of literacy allowed.” [31]

Roland Harwood, of the U.K. National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, saw applications for transliteracy in his work to develop business innovation: “All innovation is fundamentally collaborative. With increasing specialization in business and academia in recent years, this has led to an increasing need for organizations and individuals to develop wider, more open networks, partnerships and trusted communities to share ideas and to innovate. In particular, a powerful source of innovation is to collaborate across traditional boundaries, be they organizational, disciplinary or geographic. Therefore, much of the discussion centered upon how can we communicate effectively and build trust across these disparate communities. Technology definitely has a major role to play in supporting these boundary–disrupting collaborations, but perhaps there is a need to further develop most peoples’ ‘transliteracy’ skills.” [32]

And English scholar Dr. Ruth Page, of the University of Central England, responded to the proposition that collaboration could be a quality of transliteracy: “I see the relationship between transliteracy and collaboration as one of mutual and dialectic enabling, rather than as one being a defining property of the other. I questioned whether one could be transliterate on your own? Surely you can? Similarly collective behavior need not be transliteracy. Instead, I think the collective (Web 2.0) nature of communication is both a by–product and a cause of transliteracy.” [33]



Future development and debate

More research is needed to reveal the potential of transliteracy. We have been working at it slowly, identifying examples of transliterate practice (Yahoo Pipes; Diigo and many more) laughing at transliterate jokes (Icon Soup; Web 2.0 Expo UGC t–shirt), and scraping away layers of ‘new media’ to find the ‘old media’ beneath (Mike Wesch’s movie The Machine is Us/ing Us; Al Gore‘s desk). It may turn out to be an important unifying concept, or it might be too broad to have any meaning at all. Our intuition, however, is that it does have some mileage, if only because it is simple enough to be quickly understood and flexible enough to have many applications [34].

For the moment, though, there is work to do. Our group is necessarily limited by its own fields of expertise and we hope this article will be of interest to researchers in other areas who may see synergies with their own work and wish to develop their own take on transliteracy. We see potential applications everywhere — in e–learning and education; business, commerce and manufacturing; social science, politics and economics; transdisciplinary studies; philosophy and anthropology; the arts, and many other fields. Transliteracy is already embedded in the curriculum for students on the DMU Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media and the transdisciplinary IOCT Master’s Program. Further transliteracy events are planned, including an Unconference in September 2007 (already fully booked), and there is a new e–mail discussion list.

We invite your responses to this article via your literacy of preference. Join the list. Write on the wiki. Comment on our blog. Put a video online and tell us about it. Blog about us and give us a ping. Call us. Fax us. Tag us. Send a postcard. Drop in for a chat. We look forward to hearing from you.

Join the list:
Comment/Ping our blog:
Tag us:
Call us: +44 (0)116 207 8266
Fax us: +44 (0)116 257 7265
Send a postcard: c/o Prof Sue Thomas, Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, 1 The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, UK
Drop in for a chat: End of article


About the authors



This paper profited hugely from the input of many people, online via our blogs and their own, and offline at the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University. We have also benefited from conversations with IOCT Visiting Professor and PART researcher Howard Rheingold, and with students on the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media. In addition, we wish to acknowledge the contributions of Howard Rheingold and Professors Andrew Hugill and Mohammad Ibrahim in their presentations at the Transliteracy Colloquium, May 2007. Many ideas in this article were heavily influenced by participants at that colloquium and we wish to thank each participant for their freely offered time, insights and criticisms, all of which have helped to strengthen this paper. Thanks also to colleagues at various seminars and conferences where we have presented our early thinking on transliteracy, and to the U.K. Higher Education Academy English Subject Centre for its interest and support from the very beginning. A special acknowledgement must go to Professor Alan Liu and his Transliteracies Project team at the University of California Santa Barbara for their 2005 conference Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading, without which this work would not have begun.


Transliteracy resources



1. Soccer, for our North American readers.

2. “Transliteracies Project: Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading,” at, accessed 20 June 2007.

3. Her conference report can be read at Sue Thomas, “Transliteracy — Reading in the Digital Age,” English Subject Centre Newsletter, issue 9 (November 2005), at, accessed 21 June 2007.

4. Berners–Lee at, accessed 20 June 2007.

5. “The Lulu Blooker Prize 2007,” at, accessed 20 June 2007.

6. “Digital literacy.” is defined by Gilster as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers”; see Gilster, 1997, p. 1.

7. McLuhan, 1964, p. 63.

8. Ong, 1982, p. 3.

9. Saveri, et al., 2005, p. 3.

10. “,” at, accessed 20 June 2007.

11. Press release, at, accessed 20 June 2007.

12. Bush and Tiwana, 2005, p. 70.

13. Agre and Horswill, 1997, node 3.

14., accessed 30 November 2007.

15. Cavalcanti, 2004, p. 320.

16. Cavalcanti, 2004, p. 322.

17. Abram, 1997, p. 175.

18. Of course, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Plato did exactly this when he transcribed the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus as it was taking place under a plane tree by the banks of the Ilissus; Abram, 1997, p. 177.

19. Van de Poel, 2005, p. 8.

20. An open source browser extension that lets developers create Web applications that can run offline, available at, accessed 20 June 2007.

21. The ubiquitous quality test of equating a good book with being able to read it in the bath is guaranteed to infuriate these authors whenever it appears. See, for example, Jess Laccetti, “Digitise or Die: A personal reflection,” at, accessed 20 June 2007.

22. Bastos, et al., 2007, para 2.

23. Ibid.

24. Cavalcanti, 2004, p. 322.

25. Available at,29307,1622338_1363003,00.html, accessed 20 June 2007.

26. The tree frog is a common symbol of biodiversity.

27. Szwed, 1981, p. 14.

28. We do not propose to define these terms here and now. Indeed it is unclear whether the terms have any meaning.

29. Mason, 1998, p. 306.

30. Szwed, 1981, p. 14.

31., accessed 20 June 2007.

32., accessed 20 June 2007.

33., accessed 20 June 2007.

34. All of these refer to entries on our transliteracy blog at, accessed 20 June 2007.



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Walter J. Ong, 1982. Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Plato, 1997. “The Phaedrus,” translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. In: John M. Cooper (editor). Plato: Complete works. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.

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Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat and Chris Joseph, 2004. “The Breathing Wall,” CD–ROM, and at, accessed 20 June 2007.

Andrea Saveri, Howard Rheingold, and Kathi Vian, 2005. “Technologies of cooperation,” Palo Alto, Calif.: Institute for the Future, and at, accessed 20 June 2007.

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John Szwed, 1981. “The ethnography of literacy,” In: Marcia F. Whiteman (editor). Writing: The nature, development and teaching of written communication. Volume 1. Variation in writing, functional and linguistic–cultural differences. Baltimore, Md.: L. Erlbaum Associates, pp. 13–24.

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Editorial history

Paper received 26 June 2007; accepted 30 November 2007.

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Transliteracy: Crossing Divides by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, Kate Pullinger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Transliteracy: Crossing divides by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger
First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007