Last week I keynoted a virtual conference on digital literacy and fake news. Actually, I helped organize an opening panel, then took notes on sessions, then offered a closing presentation.
Here are my notes, with a couple of the slides. The whole slidedeck is on Slideshare.
Summing up from today’s discussions, here are some themes that really stood out for me:
- The importance of a civic role of digital literacy learners and teachers
- The emergence of new technologies and practices
- That there are multiple forms and responses to fake news
- Curation: libraries curate, but also teach users (or patrons) to curate content
- The importance of teaching critical thinking
- “ “ “ adding other information forms beyond text document: images, data, infographics
I’ll weave some of that into these remarks, and perhaps we can touch on them in the subsequent Q+A.
So where does digital literacy stand now? You can see some widely understood principles. There is a shared genealogy of Media literacy leading to information literacy which grows into digital literacy. There is a shared understanding that digital literacy involves a mixture of technical, social, and personal capacities. And there is a rising awareness that digital literacy means learners are social, participatory makers.
This last point is vital and still not fully grasped. Learners use digital tools to both consume information and make and share new stuff, which isn’t the universal way we think of how schools, libraries, and museums operate. Students are prosumers, in Alvin Toffler’s formulation. They are also, increasingly, digital storytellers, which reframes their relationship to content.
So where do we go from here?
When we think of digital literacy in 2017, we cannot escape what happened in 2016. Last year’s events have made us all conscious of the deep connection between digital literacy and politics. Yes, some observers have been making this argument for years — I’m thinking of leaders like Doug Belshaw, Helen Beetham, and Ellen Helsper, among others — but the watershed British and American votes, with their international implications, have forced everyone to rethink the political grounding of information, media, and the digital world. Hence our focus on fake news.
This is a powerful realization, and we’re just in the first stages of grappling with it. For some, it’s a form of grieving for a lost model of literacy, and they’re working through the first stages of that process: denial and anger. Bargaining, depression and acceptance are coming up. But grapple we must, and the new dynamics are complex.
We have to think of the global crisis of sustainability. Ecologically, climate change is well under way, and our politics have largely failed to address this most enormous fact. It is naïve to think of keeping digital literacy separate from that this means for civilization.
We have to consider digital literacy in terms of the global crisis in governance. We live in an age of unrest, from the Arab Spring to Ukraine to Black Lives Matter to Brazil. In many nations popular discontent with or cynicism towards their political class is rising, fed by revelations like the Panama Papers and unresolved crises, like the 2008 financial collapse. People increasingly use social media to inform each other and to organize in the face of documented corruption and economic malaise. Meanwhile that political class grows anxious about governability, skeptical of democracy, and turns increasingly to surveillance, state influence or open control of media, the use of “nudging” to reshape citizen behavior, and even gamified authoritarianism in China. We cannot consider digital literacy without this context.
What does this mean for digital literacy? Where is this going? As a futurist, that’s the question I ask of every trend and problem. Let me offer some trends, cautions, and hope.
We may expect further political dysfunction, especially as different developments exacerbate each other. Environmental stresses can trigger social upheaval. State crackdowns can elicit dissent or insurgency. Mutual distrust can worsen relations between governors and the governed. Governments and businesses use digital technology to attempt to influence and control their populations, while those same populations use much of that technology to inform themselves, organize, and resist. Meanwhile, technological and demographic forces continue to rewrite many aspects of human society.
In the words of excellent novelist, short story writer, and futurist Bruce Sterling:
The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.
How does digital literacy evolve in this context?
People will use digital literacy — by any definition — to organize politically, across the full range of political spectra, from antifa to alt-right, black bloc to pro-government militias. Those of us who teach or support digital literacy cannot separate ourselves from these uses, and we will have to rethink our practice.
We have to be mindful of the full range of technology complexity. On the one hand, we obviously need to advance our frameworks and curricula as new platforms emerge and grow. VR, AR, mixed reality, blockchain-based systems like Ethereum and the internet of things each offer distinct affordances, virtues, and challenges for information and creativity. Those of us in the digital literacy field have to be ahead of the curve in understanding the implications.
Automation is another technological field we need to observe closely and work critically with. It has already impacted information, media, and digital literacies, from spambots to AI-generated journalism and software conducting legal document discovery.
Think, for example, of Meta. This is software designed to automate some aspects of scientific publication and discovery, including identifying promising research before it wins professional attention. It was recently purchased by the Chan Zuckerberg foundation in their quest to revamp the life sciences.
Should we anticipate similar AI projects for information literacy, for detecting fake news, for helping us decide how to participate in social media, for helping us remix or make new content?
At the same time, while much of the fake news debate focuses on social media, it often ignores the influence of other media, such as television news, which is especially important for older people. As media literacy teaches us, we cannot neglect the importance of print and broadcast media, which persist even as the attention spotlight moves on.
As David Edgerton reminds us, older technologies often have a long lifespan in actual use. While we must attend to mixed reality and drone-enabled WiFi, we cannot forget that people still use radio, print books, and television. Older, 20th-century media habits foregrounding users as consumers rather than producers still persist in the 21st-century’s second decade.
Which brings us to the question of authority. Concern over fake news has led to two opposed responses. I have previously named them lower-case-d democrats and neo-gatekeepers.
The democrats argue that people should and can make their own decisions about digital information. They draw on the heritage of information and media literacies, movements which sought to empower readers (and viewers, and listeners, and browsers, and…).
Critics of this democratic approach point to the flood of fake news, sometimes arguing that it helped shape the Brexit and US presidential votes. Either users can’t be trusted to know and use digital literacies, or enough of us are illiterate enough to turn the bad stories viral. Until the population as a whole practices solidly skeptical digital literacy, Macedonian click farms will prey on our understanding. Hence the need for new authorities, such as having Facebook or Google use humans or AI to vet content. Hence, too, the call for more support to traditional authorities, like newspapers…
…or librarians, and this is where I’d like to close. Librarians think broadly, incorporating political and technological transformation into their very detailed, practical work of, if I may respectfully repurpose Raganathan, helping connect each prosumer with their information. Librarian may become our guides to digital making. Librarians could become our human guides to automated learning and culture. Librarians, as professionals who have always been committed to their communities, may become the support networks for political insurgencies, either as restored authorities or as advocates for democratic information in a seething digital world.
Librarians are now on the front lines of the future, our best hope for understanding and dealing with these enormous changes.
Thank you. Now I’ll respond to questions from the chat box.