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REVIEW: Literacy in the New Media Age

Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.

The rise of technology and digital media have given people new ways to communicate. In this text, Kress builds the case that technology’s change on communication strategies has changed the fabric of literacy itself. Multiple modes of human and digital communication send messages, and message creators must be mindful of the ways in in which meaning is conveyed in each of them.

Early in the text, Kress examines the ways in which new and digital media have changed traditional communication. For example, the Internet, social media, and text messages have narrowed the scope and increased the impact of messages, because people are trying to fit the most information into the fewest number of characters, for example. In other instances, the mobile app Instagram lets people, and media, share messages simply with images (in no place was this more evident to me when, after moving to the South, I posted a photo of an Orange Julius cup to my Facebook page, and saw more than 25 “Likes” and comments from my friends back home, where the restaurant no longer operates).

The need to spread information quickly is perpetuated, Kress claims, by the rise of visual communication and visual culture. Digital communication, with a heavy emphasis on visuals, has created a need for literacy that goes beyond understanding words; new literacy must embrace the multiple modes in which humans communicate.

Throughout his text, Kress refers to modes of communication, taking an alternate definition to the term than was explained by Ruth Finnegan (2002). Kress defines mode as the common culture, the high fashion, and the mass society. Mode, here, is the most common elements of a society. So, say, in the state of Ohio, the mode culture is Ohio State football.

Understanding the modes of the media used to communicate messages is the crux of literacy in the technology age. I agree with Kress here; being able to effectively communicate in the new media age means that a person must understand the multiple ways in which messages can be sent, as well as the common culture shared by society.

One of his key points in this discussion centers on a “No Smoking” sign at a restaurant. While the visual side of the sign in clear in meaning, a “no” symbol over a cigarette, the accompanying text is quite confusing regarding the rules about when one can and cannot smoke. Kress argues that the visual sign sends a clear message, while the text sends a convoluted one. The nature of the message being sent, and the nature of the mode for these kinds of messages, should dictate the media used for communication. If mode dictates that people associate the No symbol with a cigarette to mean no smoking, then text that says otherwise serves only to confuse the message’s receiver.

As Kress discusses the need to have design literacy, he makes an interesting point that anyone can have a natural sense of design based on simply knowing what looks good. While I can agree with Kress here to an extent, it is quite clear Kress has never laid out a page using Quark XPress or anything from the Adobe Creative Suite to understand the overwhelming possibilities in modern graphic design can derail any introductory design dream. While a person, with a common amount of sense regarding proportion and space, CAN create a page that communicates information in a passable way, it does not necessarily mean that person can CONSISTENTLY make a page that communicates information in a passable way. Graphic design, like photography, sometimes happens by luck, but more often than not, in both professions, the creator of the visual message must have a greater sensibility regarding proportion and spacing to craft the message. The evidence to that effect can be seen in largely any weekly newspaper throughout the country, where information isn’t so much planned but mostly plopped down on 12.5-by-22.5 inches of newsprint, with nary a photograph or dominant headline to be found.

Kress gives credit to the common man here, while I take a more cynical view, but in the end, our perceptions unite in the fact that the common man can consume a page with well planned proportions and ordered spacing and see what is the most important piece of information it conveys. His section discussing the manner in which readers consume content on a web browser drives this point home, in which he says that design elements including navigation bars and white space provide salience and emphasis to components of the site design. With these simple guideposts, a novice reader can quickly become literate to the implied message of importance and rank order within the site’s design.

Overall, this text is a thorough look at changing purpose of communication. Its original contribution to the field is its explanation of the sensibilities of visual work, and their abilities to send messages through graphic design. Specifically, it considered the way technology and visual media have impacted the traditional, text-based media model, as Kress embraces the differences between screen-based media and print-based media throughout the text.

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