The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people. ~ Jaron Lanier
One of the central problems of a digital literacy club is that of definition (the other big challenge is yawns and their suppression). ‘Literacy’ can have several meanings, each corresponding to different levels of proficiency. For instance, is someone deemed techno-literate if they can successfully use a computer? Or should only those who can program entire applications be considered adequate?
The answer, at least in our opinion, lies somewhere in the middle. Merely knowing how to operate a computer is not enough, but neither is it necessary for everyone to become an expert coder –and knowing how to program is only a part of being digitally literate.
DigLit’s definition of digital literacy is simple: know how to change technology and know how it can change you. The former can be achieved by learning the basic tenets of programming, the latter by cultivating an awareness of the biases encoded into the digital world.
However, before we delve any further into the methods of acquiring these skills, a more important question remains. The elephant in the room: ” Why should I care?” Writer Douglas Rushkoff puts it eloquently:
In the emerging highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: program, or be programmed. Choose the former and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter and it could be the last real choice you get to make.
The above passage suggests that humans can be ‘programmed’, this harks back to DigLit’s mission statement and the importance of being aware of the effects of technology. The idea of a piece of code changing us might seem absurd at first, but examples abound: easy-to-make chat emoticons are slowly eroding true emotion, the incessant beep of notifications chip away our ability to focus, and a dollop of digital-anonymity can bring out the worst in people (read: trolling).
These insidious changes all arise due to certain common ‘biases’ programmed into the software we use. For example: most programs are designed to be asynchronous i.e. they have no notion of time, but the human nervous system exists in the present; when our time-dependent minds try to keep up with the ‘always-on’ Internet we feel stressed and tired. Once we are cognizant of all such hidden biases we can better understand and avoid the subtle influences of technology.
While the prospect of no longer being technology’s puppet is nice what is even more fun is becoming the puppeteer yourself. This brings us to the arcane art of programming. Learning to program is not hard — at least not any more — and is worth it not for mastery but for a more nuanced understanding of the digital world, and the ability to be an active citizen of the Web.
And then of course there are a few other trifling problems such as debunking the Singularity, repelling cyberattacks, open source democracy, realizing constructionism, and adapting the economy to the digital age. We’ll get to that too.
Anyhow, the question is: what are you waiting for? The control panel of civilization awaits. Come claim it.
Image via Pixar Wiki.