There is a big confusion and a wrong interpretation about the term ‘digital literacy’.
American Heritage dictionary’s definition:
One who can read and write.
Repeat ‘One who can read and write.’
The fact that a person knows how to use Word or post a photograph on Instagram, does not prove, at least does not certify, any digital literacy. Knowing how to write and read the language of our times (the computer language) is a different game.
And this is the big problem. Almost all of humanity is unable to write and read any kind of computer language on which today’s world is based. The work of robots that work 24/24 on economic transactions, information management, online reservations and endless other activities concerning our daily choices remains an inaccessible and incomprehensible world for almost everyone. Almost all the world’s population needs an interpreter for any basic variation of a program, someone who translates our needs into digital forms.
In principio erat Verbum,
et Verbum erat apud Deum,
et Deus erat Verbum.
What is happening today is exactly the same that happened in the Middle Ages. When the power was in the hands of the literate people. The faithful during the masses recited the prayers without having any idea of what they were repeating. The big part of the narrative structure (if you prefere the old school storytelling) was relegated to the iconographic sequences, illustrating The Passion, Ascension Day, etc. Let’s make a comparison with our digital age, if you think about it, it is not very far from what is happening nowadays. Pre-set operations (templates) are mostly performed, made (written) by people who know the computer language and relegate your possibility of interaction, within a world defined by a small group of programmers. In other words they create, invent, interpret your needs and realize user interfaces (UI) so that you can understand and carry out your actions.
We use icons, buttons, images, just like children. And how children behave: when a software does not have a simple UI, we discard it. On the other hand we could not do otherwise, for the simple fact that we can not implement absolutely nothing in the code, being digital illiterates.
Nothing has changed, the centuries pass, but the power still remains in the same hands: who is literate. In this case, who knows the new Verb. This also explains the great difficulty of the intellectual world to formalize the current historical period. For the first time in history (since the existance of the modern academic world), the ownership of language that defines power has shifted. Decentralized in the ether, scattered in the network.
The power of the code
In less than twenty years, the world economic power has concentrated in a few companies, all of them having coding in the core of their business. For instance, Amazon in 2018 has achived 800 billion dollars, meanwhile Apple is preparing to become the first 1.000 billion dollars company. Italy’s GDP is estimated around 2.100 billion Euros. You can draw your own conclusions.
Billion of users post social contents everyday, generating a massive ads volume. So massive to leave only the crumbs to the oldest 4th and 5th power, press and broadcast. In all this human effort to participate and appear in the virtual world, there are very few of us earning money while at it.
Programming languages, more and more advanced and high-level (high level means more similar to the human language), prove to be much more than just automation model. The semantic structure is more and more closer to human language, and the algorithms are taking the forms of a common script.
Aesthetics and code
Recently I witnessed a discussion between two programmers, they talked about classic figures of rhetoric and more elegant forms to solve a given problem. In a nutshell, they were speaking of ‘the beauty’ and more generally, of the different aesthetic forms within an algorithm, as if they were talking about a work of art; how, even if less efficient, the particular set of coding instructions could be closer to his philosophy as an independent programmer than that diktated by the market. Is there a new kind of romanticism among programmers?
Joking aside, any language follows a precise semantics and a syntax, and the more they are rigid, the more ambiguous interpretations are limited.
With the implementation of machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning (and of course their relative training), “interpretation” enters the computer world, and suddenly we find ourselves interfacing with a stochastic model that increasingly looks like the human one. A little bit like what Google introduced with Google Duplex. The impossibility of distinguishing a machine from a human being (circumscribed in a specific topic) is today a reality and all this reveals exciting but equally unpredictable scenarios.
Of course we are still far from an AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) but now it is increasingly clear and likely that sooner or later we will come to create an artificial form of consciousness.
For these reasons, it is urgent to make information technology a humanistic matter, not to confuse a language and its power with God. As was the case in the Middle Ages.
If we talk about basic literacy, nowadays we need to include and study the basics of computer language from primary school. A fairer and just society can only be born on the basis of computer literacy for all, which implicitly includes the ability to write and read. Who writes code orders the machine what to do, who is not able to write code takes orders from the machine. It is clear that digital illiteracy is the new form of slavery.
A slavery to which one not only can not resist but does not even know the words to identify what the problem is.
There is only one priority to which the academic system has to respond urgently: to make digital literacy an obligation. An obligation to learn how to write and read code. No matter what coding language is chosen, dozens of languages currently follow more or less the same rules. The important thing is to guarantee the tools to be able to read and understand what happens in a program and make it possible to develop as soon as possible “popular” computer languages, a sort of ‘vulgar’ programming code that will help the process of democratization of programming.
Because today our freedom is written with algorithms and makes a slave who does not understand them.