Risk literacy and futures literacy: New column

The first instalment of “Scripturient”, my new quarterly column for Information Professional magazine, is out now.

Picture of a mechanical fortune teller from CILIP's Information Professional Magazine, captioned with the word "insight"
Picture licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 from Flickr user halfbisqued

In this series, I’ll be looking at how we can push the boundaries of literacy in the 21st century, to encompass new areas of representation. What does it mean to read the future? To read risks? To read the forces that underpin our relationships and drive us psychologically? To read the signs and signals which exist in the natural world?

Join me, over four instalments in 2020, to explore some of these questions in the pages of Information Professional.

You can read the first column, which covers futures literacy and risk literacy, in this PDF download, or in the text below.

* * *

Are you on social media? Do you scroll as much as I do? Do you retweet, share…overshare? Are you scripturient?

Good word, isn’t it? It means “possessed of a violent desire to write.” I learned it last year, from Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine, and I’m taking it with me into 2020.

Seymour’s book is a polemic against social media as it currently stands. He argues that privately owned social networks do us little or no good. They bait our attention and use it unhealthily. They exploit our desire to be in the know. They profit from the data we freely surrender.

When Seymour talks about scripturience, he doesn’t just mean words. He means video, images, all the media which get encoded or “written” in the digital domain. He thinks of our texts and tweets and posts and updates, and says “never before in human history have people written so much, so frantically.”

He asks: “What else could we be doing with writing, if not this?”

Will you join me in finding answers to this question in 2020? Like Seymour, I want to stretch the boundaries of literacy – but not too much. I was a kindergarten teacher once; I think that figuring out how to put language on a page, and decode it again, is its own special beast. In a world of financial, visual, cultural, and other literacies, the word can lose its power. Maybe it shouldn’t be lumped together with, say, knowing how to manage household finances.

Still, there’s something to be said for thinking about literacy as the mastery of a system of representation. We might learn by attending to other domains in which we can empower people to “read” – and write – for themselves.

* * *

New years tend to orient us towards the future, and what’s coming for the UK in 2020 merits special attention. That’s why I wanted to start with “futures literacy”. UNESCO’s Riel Miller defines it as “the skill that allows people to better understand the role that the future plays in what they see and do.” With turbulent times ahead – the climate crisis, political volatility, technological change – being able to read the future is a vital skill for everyone from specialist institutions to local neighbourhoods.

We might not be able to scry what’s coming in a crystal ball, but today’s best foresight techniques are humble: instead of predicting the future, they seek to illuminate the situations that will be most challenging or opportune. Using them can help with anticipation, empowering us to think strategically about choices and consequences.

Futures literacy is complemented by “risk literacy”, as described by Gert Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Gigerenzer directs a branch of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin but, surprisingly, he echoes Michael Gove in seeming to have had enough of experts. To be fair, Gigerenzer hasn’t lost respect for the notion of expertise. He just lacks patience with paternalistic policymaking. “As a general policy,” he writes, “coercing and nudging people like a herd of sheep instead of making them competent is not a promising vision for a democracy”.

Instead, Gigerenzer proposes getting all of us better acquainted with risk and uncertainty. We need to understand which outcomes can be known and calculated, and which can’t. We must better acquaint ourselves with the ways in which probability is presented, too: do you know what it means if the weather forecast says there’s an 80% chance of rain? Can you explain it?

Futures literacy draws on current information to create better visions of the future: richer, more nuanced, more challenging, more useful. Risk literacy empowers people to make better choices for themselves, rather than simply assuming that experts know best and should decide for us.

Is the information profession currently futures literate and risk literate? If we want the communities we serve to make better choices, and do so with a clearer picture of what’s ahead, what should we be doing? Which practices should we abandon? Which should we adopt? How can we help people to read the future, to read the risks and uncertainties which await them – and perhaps write their way into a better world?

4 thoughts on “Risk literacy and futures literacy: New column

  • This is a really interesting topic Mat. I am looking forward to reading more!
    There are so many ‘literacies’ these days. Is it not likely, however, that we are all talking about the same thing though? Should we not be saying that if our students in schools were taught to be independent learners through inquiry learning and becoming information, this already includes risk and futures literacy already? Although I have to admit that these are terms I have ever used. If we teach them to question and make up their own minds is this not where the journey starts?

    • Good question, Elizabeth! I think the freedom library users have to explore or create information and make up their own minds – compared to more instructional settings such as the traditional classroom – is one of the great strengths of the library, even in its shelfiest form.

      Like you, I also wonder how many literacies we need – in which domains is it worth specifying ways of representation, so we can focus our attention and ensure more people can “read” and “write” in those domains?

      Ultimately, I’m thinking as much of information professionals themselves as the communities they serve. How good is the profession at anticipating the future, and risk vs uncertainty? I’m just completing a short project on the future of schools which might be relevant to your circumstances in this regard.

      Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

  • I agree, engaging our information professionals in these conversations is a challenge and an interesting one. It is important that they understand this as much as the people they serve. Focused CPD in this area is definitely needed in my opinion.

    I would love to hear about your project on schools!

    P.S. I missed out the word ‘literate’ in my original message after information. I will try to edit but I see you understood what I was talking about… 🙂

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