an interviw with Mihai Nadin by Thom Gillespie

The original impetus for this article came when a very smart talented 19 year-old walked into my office and said his goal was to work for Dreamworks or ILM as an animator. This student is very smart, talented, imaginative and can master any piece of software known to humankind in hours. What he hasn't mastered is paper and pencil; he can't draw. It suddenly dawned on me that this 19 year old is going to be afflicted for the rest of his life by the fact that he can't draw well enough to be the animator he wants to be. His education has essentially rendered him visually illiterate. .At the same time I had been looking at Alan Kay's Squeak project imagining a world where Squeak was the pencil children used starting in kindergarten. I was imagining a learning environment where even kindergartners were expected to draw, write, animate, program and make music as matter of fact at a very young age. I was imagining an education which would have helped my 19 year-old get where he wanted to go. I had no idea how to write this article so I asked a bunch of people what a new literacy for a new media might look like. I asked all sorts of folks until finally George Landow suggested I try to track down either Mihai Nadin or his book Civilization of Illiteracies. Mihai's book was not in the Indiana University library and Amazon and showed it only as used, out-of-print. I eventually found Mihai but the return email said he was out of the country, Germany. As luck would have it I received email from Mihai that he was visiting at Berkeley this past spring term. I received this just before I was flying to San Jose to the Game Developer's conference so I quickly made arrangements to rent a car and drive up to talk to this very odd character who had written an 800 page book on illiteracies. All the other folks I talked to had chunks of very good information but not exactly what I was looking for. Many of the chunks were very good so I still have them and may do something with them in the future but with Mihai I found a man who has been thinking about my 19 year old student for the past 14 years. Below is my interview with Mihai and at the end I list two of his books. I completely recommend trying to find his Civilization of Illiteracy.

T: Mihai, your book is a book which proclaims the end of literacy. Isn't this a bit of an oxymoron?

M: Oxymoron? In the sense that I am writing about the end of something which has to do with writing? Actually I say that this book should not exist and that this is the last book of the civilization of literacy. It is an oxymoron in the sense that we are still analyzing a development to which we belong using the most convenient analytical means we have and this is through language. But as I say in the book I could have conceived of a book which would have had a multimedia reality in which the arguments would have been articulated in a multimedia form. It would be a possibility; it would be very difficult because we only think that the new media, the new forms of expression are easier than those associated with language. At this moment they are not easier. Access to the expression of multimedia communication is easy but the expression of multimedia is very difficult. We are facing a very interesting moment. Here we have well established a whole body of knowledge that is more or less accepted and which is represented by various technologies that are related to how do we write, how do we read, how do we understand what we read or write. We don't have the equivalents in other domains such as multimedia. But as we advance toward what I call the pragmatic age we discover that language can not do as it has done until now. The overhead represented by everything involved in the use of language is such that it starts to effect our efficiencies as a species.

So, while you are definitely right in noticing that I am writing that writing is no longer the medium through which we acquire and disseminate knowledge. At the same time I report about the technological difficulties of reaching the same levels of efficiencies we have reached with traditional literacy. So, using writing to report this change was a necessary decision on my part.

T: I noticed when I downloaded your book in pdf format that a hypertext format would have made more sense but your limitation in this instance at this point in time is that you are a literate person?

M: Absolutely. I am reporting in my book that I am the product of the civilization of literacy. I am captive to this civilization and that the struggle between that which I belong and that which is challenging me is not an easy challenge.

T: When you talk about literacy you use the word 'efficiency' and you suggest that it was once more efficient than it is now.

M: Correct. Efficiency is the measure of the output in what ever we do. In our dialog. In taking care of the field or in producing computers in a factory. That output is related to what ever effort it takes to reach the output. At this moment due to the so called digital means our level of efficiency that is no longer comparable to anything we know from the history of mankind. That level of efficiency reached during the industrial age was a perfect reflection of the efficiency of literacy. That potential is now exhausted.

T: Give me an example.

M: The entire knowledge acquisition today at both the grade school and the university levels is no longer through literacy but through other means. When they came home from school children acquire their knowledge visually, with with tone, and multimedia.

T: Let me ask you about the internet. To use the internet today you have to read the internet. So, don't you consider the internet a literary experience?

M: No, if you look at the type of language we use on the internet it is a meta language, a mere 3-4-500 words which no longer qualifies as literate. We are merely functionally acceptable in that universe. Once you get a word you do not know you click and you expect the internet to explain the word to you. You do not bring your knowledge to the internet; you expect to get your knowledge from the internet. You are also talking about an internet which has yet to find its voice. The most interesting applications of the internet have nothing to do anymore with words. Collaborative work on the internet or cycles of production which are driven by the internet or even the new forms of commerce driven through the internet are no longer literacy based. The language is rudimentary. It pains me even when I am looking at news from the best news sites on the internet. If this text was presented in a traditional class this text would be rated a failure.

T: The NY Times is currently selling a premium service which allegedly completely duplicates the traditional paper. What would you expect to happen to this service?

M: It will die and it will die relatively fast as many have died before. Very, very good writers have tried their luck on the internet and they have failed. The internet is not a medium for literacy. They don't get it.

T: What informed you original interest in illiteracy?

M: 14 years ago I arrived in the United States and I went to my first class at the Rhode Island School of Design. That school claims to be the Harvard of the arts and probably is. In the middle of the class I had a crisis. I said to myself: I will never be able to teach in the United States. I was referring to things which were totally normal in the environment from which I came, the European environment. I was referring to poets and philosophers and writers you don't have to have a degree to know about but the students kept looking at me and saying: who is that? People like Walt Whitman. At the same time I looked at those kids and I realized that they were tremendously successful in what ever they attempted. They were functioning in that society at a level I could not imagine. Even at that time they had imprinted upon them the ability to cope with a tremendous amount of change but they could not cope with anything of a permanent nature. That was my crisis. I asked the question: What is happening here? Am I failing? Do I bring with me something which simply does not belong here? Am I witnessing the emergence of something new?

T: What were you teaching?

M: I was teaching two disciplines: philosophy and semiotics. Slowly, after 2 semesters I began introducing computers into my studies. And then I worked with Brown University students and with MIT students. They started coming to my classes because we were combining these various forms of expressions, these various literacy's.

T: Are you a visual person?

M: Visual means?

T: If I said to you: can you draw? What would you say?

M: I would say yes I can draw but I am not an artist. Am I a designer? No I am not which means what? I design things in my life but they do not qualify as design. But, I teach. I invented a new program called computational design. But I did this on a foundational level, not as a skill.

T: When you first came to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), did you move to the students point of view or did they have to move to yours?

M: I would say it was in both directions. And that was a wonderful thing. It would have been much more difficult in a European country. It was a process which took time. It was not love on both sides but slowly we gained momentum and 3 years after I had begun this process at RISD I was approached by Ohio State for an endowed chair in what they called Art & Design Technology.

T: Ok, so you are teaching in Europe and you come to the US to RISD and you now have a different kind of student?

M: A different type of student, yes, but that is not enough. The big thing was that the environment was different. It was an environment of innovation, an environment which made possible change which Europe did not make possible for a long time and even today it still remains a big problem.

T: What makes change so possible here where it isn't possible in Europe?

M: America did not have the literate history Europe had? It did not have this history to say good by to.

T: In your book you said that certain nations have a vested interest in maintaining literacy; what nations were you talking about?

M: German has a vested interest in its own literacy, its own culture. France is similar but they are challenged within the European community. You go to countries such as Holland and you have a more American dynamic working.

T: Do you think it is more American because Holland is more of a mixed country such as the US than Germany and France?

M: That is one explanation but definitely not the only explanation. You also have countries such as Sweden, Denmark or Norway who are less captive to the literacy than Germany but still less American than Holland.

T: You seem to be suggesting that illiteracy is an advantage?

M: I'm not saying that; I'm saying something else.

T: But in your book you describe illiteracy as an opportunity.

M: An advantage and an opportunity are two different things. As an opportunity it means the following: there are certain characteristics of literacy that currently are not an advantage. Literacy is not transparent. It keeps us from having access to all that we are entitled in a democratic society. Literacy is hierarchical and centralized. All of these aspects impact the types of practical activities people are involved with. Overcoming these limitations of literacy is what are the opportunities of illiteracy. How do you overcome these limitations? I don't know. I am not proclaiming that tomorrow we should not teach language anymore. My major message is to teach together: traditional literacy, visual literacy, multimedia literacy. Let's give every individual the possibility to unfold according to his or her abilities. Some people are not, due to biological constitution, inclined toward a literate mode of expression. Others are more inclined. If you start now working toward a multitude of forms of expression, you are going to achieve the possibility of allowing each individual to reach his or her potential and that is something which literacy never allowed. Literacy is a very powerful instrument which says that the whole society is going to fit into a single model, a single mold. It can not be done. There are many people given their biological condition who will never be able to write correctly. We keep telling them they have to, they have to. Why not give them something which corresponds to their biological precondition. That is what I meant by opportunity, multiple literacy.

T: Have you ever seen students who you think are visually illiterate, musically illiterate because of cognitive reasons or because of the structure of education?

M: They are illiterate because we are not teaching them. We take it for granted that since everyone has eyes and everyone sees that everyone can deal with the visual. That is not true. The best example is the computer industry where these engineers with eyes assume they can design interfaces without any additional training. This is why we have such awful interfaces. We have a huge amount of visual information which is actually misinformation. We are very, very bad communicating visually. We are so bad communicating visually that if you look at the internet that the difference between the intended content and that which arrives is huge. 4 years ago at Stanford I tried to make a difference. Together with a group of very good friends, some of them designers, some of them working in the computer industry, t we approached Stanford and askedif it was possible to teach visual literacy for the entire campus? What ever people study, language, theology, whatever let's give them visual culture. They looked at me as if I feel from another planet.

T: But you are a professor, and I teach also, if I get a student in college who can't write they are never going to be able to really write other than just a little bit. Their writing is going to be bad because they have not had the preparation. So, big deal that Stanford institutes a visual literacy program in the freshman year. Is this the place to start visual literacy, freshman year? You will have these kids coming to campus who have spent 18 years not being visually literate. How can they possible become visually literate as freshman?

M: You are asking an important questions. At which level do we start to form our personality, at which level do we start to form our various cognitive types that represent us. Obviously, not at college level.. If I was offered the chance to do the same at the grade school level I would start with the first day of first grade. You would be surprised how much better the students would understand mathematics because the major problem kids have in mathematics comes from the fact that we are disseminating mathematics in the wrong way, in the literate way. Mathematics and literacy conflict but there is a relationship between the visual and mathematics.

T: We are talking about visual but where does music fit into their scheme?

M: It has to be there because we are talking about essential characteristics of a human being such as rhythm, a sense of time and sequence, and a sense of space which is a combination of rhythm and time and the visual.. Music is part of this.

T: What department do you teach in?

M: I teach in Computational Design a discipline I created.

T: When you taught at RISD what department did you first teach in?

M: I had a joint appointment in liberal arts and graphic design.

T: You came to graphic design from a semiotics perspective?

M: That is correct.. I introduced semiotics as the foundation for graphic design.

T: So what is Stanford going to call this program?

M: It isn't going to happen.

T: It isn't?

M: No, the discussions went along these lines. If everything you say is so interesting and correct you must have some supporters in the industry. We said if we go to AOL and Steve Jobs and Adobe we can put $10 million dollars on the table. So the guy at Stanford says well we actually need $25 million. A month later the discussions continued and we had $25 million. At that time it was obvious that it was not a matter of the money; it was that the concept was very difficult to swallow.

T: You know if I was going to pick a technical university to try what you wanted to do I would not pick Stanford, I would have picked Carnegie-Mellon because Carnegie-Mellon has this odd combination of cognitive science, fine arts and theater. Carnegie-Mellon is actually a much smaller school than Stanford, much more manageable. I could never do this at Indiana University because there are 37,000 students and they would want me to teach 500 students at a time.

M: But this is the thing, it has to be done.

T: Now I know you titled your book the Civilization of Illiteracy to make it provocative but in reality you are talking about a Civilization of Many Literacies as you say later in the book. On a practical level how would this sort of approach to a Civilization of Many Literacys work in school systems which already have teachers and librarians. You also suggest that networked learning is a critical aspect of this new model of teaching and learning. Where do the teachers and librarians fit into this model?

M: I talk about teachers in the sense that I am looking at the change in the condition and function of teaching. It is not enough to say that frontal teaching is going to disappear. So what, you teach in the middle of the room. It isn't just about topology. I think that the function of the teacher changes fundamentally. At this moment the teacher is still in the position of knowing more than any one in the room so they attempt to pour knowledge into the students head. And then they test the student to see if they remember what was told. In the future the role of the teacher will become the interface in a process which is no longer a homogenized class based upon age groups but rather based upon similar content interests, similar directions. They will be constituted on a dynamic level, mainly project oriented. The learning will be affected by the teacher but not controlled by the teacher. The teacher will not always know the most in this sturcture.

T: So, do you grade your students?

M: No longer. I practice a form I call self grading which means the student give me his or her evaluation along with the exam or project. I do not accept this evaluation automatically. For me the part of self grading is whether student understands what he has done and what he has learned or not learned. Can the student evaluate their own performance along with the area they have studied.

T: When you are doing this is the final outcome an A a B or a C?

M: This is something I can not avoid because German law does not allow me to say pass or fail. Otherwise I would automatically use a pass/fail system. German law is so strict it also tells me exactly how many minutes I can examine a person. You have nothing like this in the US.

T: When I first came to Berkeley to study it was the first place I had ever studied which had such an extensive system of pass/fail classes. I took just pass/fail classes for a year and a half at Berkeley. It allowed me to learn what interested me not just study what a professor wanted me to know. For me it was wonderful.

M: For me that is also the beauty of Berkeley. In Germany a student has almost no choice in what he or she studies. At Berkeley a student can study what he or she wants. This is what education must become.

T: Toward the end of your book you talk about the development of a global education network. What do you mean by that?

M: Much knowledge pertains to repetitive actions. How do you drive a car? How do you fix a bathtub. Those are repetitive. We can create a repository of that kind of knowledge whatever you need, whenever you need it. In respect to dynamics knowledge we need a system which allows for access, learning and sharing as knowledge unfolds in its many forms all over the world. This is what I mean by a global learning network.

T: Are you describing online education as it is practiced today or is this different?

M: Online education as it is practiced today is an exercise in perversity. Almost nothing on the internet shows us a direction to proceed. I am talking about a hybrid combination between personal networks. For example assume you and I and 7 other people are interested in trout. There is another network interested in health. There is yet another personal network interested in rivers. Ok? Our interest in trout can lead to learning based on a project we develop; we accumulate more knowledge. Now we realize that it is not enough to just know about trout. Trout live in rivers and lakes. There are health issues involved. So our local network gets together which isn't really local because I live in Germany and you live in Indiana and someone else lives in Japan and this local personal network starts to interact with other personal networks involved with rives and lakes and health. New knowledge is being accumulated, created and shared over time. This is how I see this model working. This is the brain model. Knowledge is constantly being associated and connected over and over in our minds. It works in our minds it should work in our networks of learning.

T: Do you think there are any glimmers of what this might become?

M: Yes I do. The real leaders are people who are involved in music. Learning in terms of music is happening on the web. You can see how the dynamics of these groups work on the web. They share. Another example is the way design discussion works on the internet. I am following two discussions at the moment.

T: Do you think Usenet was an early example of this sort of personal network of information?

M: Very much so.

T: I never realized that the noise on Usenet would drive out the usefulness.

M: Noise isn't an issue. It happens all the time in the brick university. It is always overcome.

T: Suppose someone is interested in education for multiple literacies and global learning networks, how do they prepare themselves for this eventuality or prepare themselves to cause this eventuality? Would you advise them to march down to Tolman Hall at Berkeley and get into a school of education?

M: I would not. I would rather they forget studying education as it is a subject in the modern university today. Education is part of the system of the institution and every institution is focused on its survival. I have never heard of an institution which by itself decided to close its doors. This does not happen. An Ed school is not going to hand over the keys tomorrow at 12 and say: lets do something else. So, I think I would rather encourage that they start an alternative form of education. I made very nervous a group of important guys in Germany dedicated to issues of education when I quoted a metaphor from Thomas Mann. He said the only important issue for mankind was how does the cocoon become a butterfly? What this means is that you have free yourself form one condition before you can get to a new condition. So, my message was, let's blow up the university. You had the students applauding to the sky and you had the administrator saying: ok, we lynch him. I received messages from other academics who said that if I worked for a corporation I would have been fired; you don't say things like that. Yes, we need to get rid of the old institutions.

T: I don't think a company would fire you. I think they would give you the money to go try something new on the chance that it would possibly succeed.

M: I would hope so but I tried to answer about 100-150 emails until I stopped because I saw this repetitive pattern where the email all kept talking about the retirement they would not give this up even if they knew that what they were doing was not right.

My claim is that the institution of education as we know it is an extension of the industrial society. Its necessity today is no longer beyond being questioned. No one would say we have no problem in schools. Everyone accepts that we have a problem. But having said that look at all the answers given. Lets look at continuity. Let's build on what we have. Lets improve. There is still a lot to be done. No one is willing to say there is a need for a totally different form of human interaction that will inturn be reflected in a different way of disseminating the knowledge society needs. Today we are looking at education as we have 10,000 seats empty, if we fill them we are a very good university. That is not what education is about. Giving a piece of paper to show someone studied something at some time? We are talking about people getting involved in practical experiences at a much younger age than before and we act if nothing has changed. People get involved in practical experiences completely independent of what they learn in schools to the point where they ask themselves: why did I waste my time in school. I didn't do anything with what I learned. So, if we are honest about it we have to truly look for alternatives. What should that something else be? We are experiencing a situation where the efficiency of the university lags behind the rest of society. The university instead of promoting progress now blocks progress.

T: What hope do you have?

M: Being the most optimistic person you have ever meet I have hope that those who need education will start to take their education into their own hands. The new generation has tremendous energy. With every student I meet there is a determination to make a living because this is difficult. To be young to day is very challenging. Change is so fast you have to ask why you need to be educated. They need something else.

T: So what is it they need? Is the need just personal? I want to learn this or that?

M: I think the greatest challenge we have today is that each of us can be treated as an individual and not as what we were expected to be. In other words each of us has a potential and it is the first time in the history of mankind that potential can be brought to fruition.

T: Do think this is the real measure of education in the 21st century, how far it can go to meet this individual potential of each and every student?

M: Definitely. I know of no other way to measure success. Standardized tests are a joke. They are good for bureaucracies to justify themselves.

Prof. Dr. Mihai Nadin
Visiting Scholar, University of California Berkeley
Berkeley Initiative in Soft Computing (BISC),
199 MF Cory Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-1776
Telephone: 510.643.4523

Civilization of Illiteracy is published by the Dresden University Press. ISBN 3-931-828-387

Project Guttenberg

MIND - tenth volume in the series Milestones in Thought and Discovery

©2002, Thom Gillespie and technos Magazine