The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate

First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there. Learning, developing, and planning from a set of first principles is an effective strategy that you can employ to break down complicated problems and generate original solutions.

Great thinkers throughout time have employed first principles thinking to challenge big problems and systematically innovate. One of the most recent examples of thinking and problem solving as guided by first principles is found in Elon Musk. In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk indicated the following: “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.” He continued, “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy.” “[With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”

Put simply, first principles thinking is a practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario. By actively problematizing any and all situations, events, and challenges, you can create new innovative knowledge and solutions. In essence, you view problems as if you naively were the first person to experience this challenge.

The opposite of this practice is focused on reasoning and problem solving by analogy, and “learning from others.” In this process, you are building knowledge and solving based on the prior assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives of others. You’re subscribing to the “best practices” approved by everyone else.

To engage in first principles thinking, you need to identify the basic truths or assumptions about a topic or field that cannot be reduced any further. Aristotle defined these first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

Now that we have an understanding of what is meant by first principles thinking, let’s identify the first principles associated with being a fully literate citizen of the Internet. Down below I have listed the five first principles I believe are at the root of what it takes to be a digitally literate citizen, now and in the future.

Please feel free to push back and comment on this. Let me know what I got right. Let me know what is missing. You can leave comments below, or use Hypothesis to leave comments and annotations.

The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate

Principle #1 The Internet is an attention grabbing, time-sucking environment. Keep your focus, and save your energy. Always focus your efforts on doing the most with the least amount of effort.

Principle #2 Most of the things we think we know about the practices, skills, and dispositions needed in these online spaces is wrong. The Internet is still relatively new, and we’re still trying to figure out how to adapt to its influence in our lives. We must think critically about experts and sources who many times use old thinking and guidance to adapt to new times.

Principle #3 Being skilled or savvy in digital spaces has nothing to do with your age, or other factors. You can learn how to engage, communicate, and participate online. Connect with others. Follow their lead and learn from them. Identify who you want to be. Trust your gut and be yourself.

Principle #4 Be flexible, yet persistent as you learn and grow. You need to have an appreciation for the randomness, noise, and chaos that is present online. As you learn, focus on growth over time. Believe that there are iterations of your work and identity…and improve between each one. Feel free to “fail fast” and stop projects, or change if they do not work.

Principle #5 Don’t work more, work differently. Truly engaging in these digital contexts involves a focus only the final product, but more importantly the process involved. This means that you need to actively develop a system and processes to help you live this lifestyle. This needs to be a cohesive strategy and plan that you regularly review over time.


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Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.