TABLE OF CONTENTS
It is too early in my on-going studies of web-based multimedia genres to draw firm conclusions about the dimensions and directions of advanced literacy beyond what carries over, transformed, from print literacies. It will be important to compare not just public interest vs. professionally oriented websites, but also scientific websites (which are somewhat conservative in conserving the substantial cultural capital already invested in scientific print literacies) vs. more avant garde experiments with the semiotic affordances of web-based media. It is typical in the evolution of any medium that it first seeks to replicate familiar genres (e.g. early live television and theatre, photography and painting, email and office memos, web chat and conversation), but then creates new genres of its own (music videos, strobe photographs, listgroups, the emerging distinctive CHAT register). The webpage itself is a new proto-genre, evolving away from its antecedents in printed page composition, and it will likely diverge into many new genres fitting specialized functional niches.
Meanwhile, analysis of web-based scientific genres continues to show us the institutional connections of scientific texts in ways that may be more obvious on the web than in print. The NASA homepage shows ample evidence of political intentions (e.g. its anti-drug message), and elsewhere in the site it is easy to trace the new emphasis on ‘doing business’ that has been added to the original mission of ‘doing science’. It would be interesting to know how many links there are from webpages in the .mil (military) domain to those in nasa.gov. The site also shows the many means by which different kinds of users are differentiated, from ‘kids’ to ‘educators’ to ‘business’ and ‘commercial technology’, from the general public to professional scientists. Institutionally, and ecologically, all these different actors and activities form a single system. We have already seen briefly here how similar presentations can be for technical and non-technical audiences; it is obvious that one is in some sense derived from the other, and it is likely that in a larger view intertextual influences circulate full-circle and the forms of technical genres take into account, even in reaction to or efforts at distinguishing themselves from less technical genres. While the differences between pages for ‘kids’ and those for professional scientists may be more striking, those for businesses are likely to be less so, and it may be quite difficult to distinguish messages for the general public, messages for scientists as citizens, and messages for political sponsors of the NASA budget. Accordingly it becomes more and more likely that genre and register conventions, or rhetorical means, will spread among pages designed for these different user groups.
Studying a complex web domain such as nasa.gov also provides the opportunity to follow the connections, and disconnections, among materials created for the entire gamut of user scientific literacy from children to professional scientists, all within a single institutional framework. This is not possible, for example, with the print publishing industry; there are probably not very many institutions that span this range. Government science agencies in the U.S. may be unique in addressing such a broad spectrum of reader-users. Social semiotics emphasizes the institutional contexts of literate practices, and if we wish to understand how our society constructs degrees of literacy, from elementary to advanced, within a single domain such as science, it may be more useful to examine various examples all within a single discernable institutional framework, rather than institutionally unconnected instances.
Finally, any enumeration of the contexts of use of these multimedia texts must include not just those of production and circulation, but also those of the local end-users. A complete social semiotic analysis would therefore add, as additional and for some purposes privileged intertexts, interview reports and on-site fieldnotes and recordings of how people actually make use of and interpret NASA webpages. In what institutional contexts (school, business, military R&D, scientific research) do people with what science literacy backgrounds make use of these pages, and for what purposes? Whom do these pages’ designs and contents serve well, and for whom are they difficult or intractable to use?
It is commonly believed that the presence of mathematical and visual-graphical elements also aids scientific comprehension in a second language. Whether this is so may depend not so much on the debatable ‘universality’ of the nonlinguistic semiotics (they are in any case internationally standardized in science across languages) as on whether students have learned their conventional forms and meanings by having previously integrated them with verbal text in any language.
It is presumably easier, especially at later ages, to teach students the necessary multimedia forms and conventions in a language in which they are proficient and otherwise experienced in dealing with scientific topics, and then assist them to make similar connections of mathematical formulas, diagrams, graphs, etc. to English text, once the combined meanings of text and image have initially been grasped. In a social semiotic perspective there is far less difference between ‘learning science’ and ‘learning scientific English’ (Lemke 1990a) than in theories which describe language entirely as a matter of forms, separable from semantic content and function, or which regard ‘science’ or ‘scientific knowledge’ as objective or mental realities separable from using language and other semiotic resources in social practices. There is no science without language, and no mastery of scientific English separate from the comprehension of some set of scientific concepts.
If we extend this view to the integrated deployment of multiple semiotic modalities, then scientific ‘concepts’ are themselves multimedia analytical entities (Lemke 1998a). What it means to understand a scientific concept is to be able to mean with it, and we mean scientifically only in some combination of words, images, and mathematical and graphical signs. Advanced scientific literacy means both the use of advanced literacy skills specific to scientific activity and the making of specialized scientific meanings that cannot be made without using some language in conjunction with other semiotic resources. It is particularly clear in the domain of scientific activity that language skills as such are not separable in practice from the particular kinds of meanings to be made, nor from the other semiotic resources needed to do so.