Moving beyond digital skills to digital understanding
Organisations across Britain (including, until recently, Doteveryone) have spent years trying to build people’s basic digital skills. This makes sense: in a society where everything from job searches to transport information to paying for school lunch is digitised, low digital skills means exclusion from the essentials of life.
But skills are not enough. Skills don’t equip people to adapt to change or to be questioning and critical about the internet. That requires digital understanding — knowledge of how the internet works, an awareness of its power structures, and an ability to question its impact on our choices, rights and lives.
At Doteveryone, we want to improve Britain’s digital understanding to help make that happen. We’re starting by setting out a definition of what digital understanding means in practice, and developing the first-ever national survey of digital attitudes and understanding.
To help guide us in developing both the definition and the survey, we and Britain Thinks recently brought together focus groups from Leeds and Watford to discuss how they feel about the internet — both online and face to face.
In the conversations, people were overall hugely positive about the benefits of the internet. Its ability to connect people, serve up information and entertain continues to inspire awe. But there were also clear negatives — specifically around access to inappropriate content and an almost universal feeling of being ‘spied upon’.
People knew there were problems, but there was no sense among our groups that they could do anything about the downsides.
“I’m rather uncomfortable [with companies collecting my information] but it’s the way the internet works now, every business does it so it’s just something that is part of life,” said one man in Leeds.
“It’s just how they make money. I expect it — you shouldn’t just accept it but you do. It’s not well known how to get away with it — how to turn it off ” said a woman in one of the Watford groups.
That kind of a relationship with the internet just isn’t fair. People need to be able to bring about the changes they want in the digital world — and to do that, they need to know and use their power as individuals, consumers, workers, and members of society.
The government has promised that its planned Digital Charter will help build a “shared understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable online” and close the gap between the speed at which technology develops and the speed at which society builds rules to manage it.
They’re calling this a “rules-based framework”. But such rules will ultimately remain meaningless unless people are empowered to use them. Without digital understanding, people won’t be able to feed into the framework’s creation or use it to call accountability and change.
This new framework must be shaped by engaging with public opinion so that we build a digital society which properly reflects our own values. It cannot simply be cooked up between government and tech companies based on presumptions about what people may or may not want.
We’re determined that our research will not sit on a shelf and gather dust. It’s vital information that both technologists and policymakers must listen to and act upon. Doteveryone’s national survey will help articulate what the British public really feels about the internet and get a true picture of our country’s digital understanding.
And we will work to make sure those in power listen.