In order to examine the current state of digital literacy, digital rights and the role of a digital consumer and a digital citizen, let us first take a trip down history lane and highlight some of the issues we have encountered as our society was moving from agricultural towards industrial context.
Consider a farmer deciding he will change his profession and try and make it as a factory worker. Let’s travel back to UK in 18th century and compare the factory worker on-boarding process with the current state in the field of digital skills.
Sidney Pollard writes about the brutality of the process in his article “Factory Discipline in the Industrial Revolution” where he notes that “the worker who left the background of his domestic workshop or peasant holding for the factory, entered a new culture as well as a new sense of direction,” and he further emphasizes “men who were non-accumulative, non-acquisitive, accustomed to work for subsistence, not for maximization of profits, had to be made obedient to the cash stimulus and obedient in such a way to react precisely to the stimuli provided” (Pollard, 254:1963).
He also notes the issue of time-keeping. “Once at work, it was necessary to break down the impulses of workers, to introduce the notion of so-called time-thrift. The factory meant economy of time and in the Webbs’ phrase so-called enforced asceticism. Bad timekeeping was punished with severe fines…” writes Pollard (257:1963).
Finally, he notes the issue of child labor as well. “Child work immeasurably increased the problem of discipline. It had, as such, been common enough before, but the earlier work pattern had been based on the direct control of children and youths in small numbers by their parents or guardians. The new mass employment removed an incentive of learning a craft, alienated the children by its monotony and did that just at the moment when it undermined the authority of the family, and of the father in particular. It thus had to rely often on the unhappy method of indirect employment by untrained people whose incentive for driving the children to was their own piece-rate payment” (Pollard, 259:1963).
We can see how factory skills were an industrial requirement that needed to break down people’s previously-established working routine and teach them to behave in a particular way in order to maximize the industrial profits.
Now let us all move ahead in time and examine the development of so-called personal responsibility that emerged from an advertising campaign by the big tobacco industry in the fifties of the 20th century and then expanded with a similar campaign done by big petrol and plastic industry in the seventies. In both cases, the logic was similar – shift the blame and the responsibility from the industry and their destructive ways of producing services or products to the consumer of these services or products. “That was an intentional, well-funded effort to convince us all that the responsibility for pollution was on us, on individuals, on litterbugs, rather than the companies that were flooding the world with single-use packaging,” John Hocevar, a marine biologist who leads Greenpeace’s oceans campaigns, told Insider (McFall-Johnsen, 2021).
Now consider the world of information society and digital skills. First let us remember the early days of online environment that slowly moved from highly specialized and extremely limited spaces to a more open-ended and inclusive environment. The early days of web for the masses were filled with “farmers” that tended their own digital field, helped each other in creating the “crop” and were oblivious to “fields” out of reach. Then came the increasingly omnipresent era of platform digital economy. “Fields” were rented out as platforms increasingly encroached the digital sphere and forced the “farmers” to start behaving as “digital serfs”. At the same time the digital sphere was expanding and overlaying on top of the non-digital world, creating a slightly skewed mirror plane with a completely different rules of digital gravity.
Kira Allmann and Grant Blank write that “in the 1990s, the digital world was interesting and useful, but it was optional. The internet was primarily an online repository of information paralleling or enhancing information and services that were also available offline. By contrast, the digital world today is pervasive and encompassing. The internet defines this era; the Covid-19 pandemic has only further affirmed the reality that the internet has become a foundation of our interactions regarding jobs, government, entertainment, shopping and more. The digitization of basic services worldwide, from banking to welfare to job applications, means that using digital technologies is no longer optional; it is a requirement for full participation in social, economic and civic life.” (Allmann, Blank, 2021)
The personal responsibility angle is clear. If an individual does not learn these digital skills, he or she risks of being ex-communicated from the society and a vast number of essential services. But that is not the only problem with teaching people digital skills.
We also have to inquire about the actual definition of digital skills and competences. The EU defines them as “”confident, critical and responsible use of, and engagement with, digital technologies for learning, at work, and for participation in society. It includes information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, media literacy, digital content creation (including programming), safety (including digital well-being and competences related to cybersecurity), intellectual property related questions, problem solving and critical thinking”” (Digicomp, 2022) which sounds all-encompassing until we compare them to speeches made by EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in which she repeatedly ties these digital skills to creating a new work force. “People should make the most of digital technologies, and fully participate in our increasingly digital world. Almost 3 in 4 businesses in Europe – mainly small and middle size enterprises – say they don’t find employees with the digital skills they would need, so they cannot invest and grow. And only 1 in 6 digital specialists is a woman: to me it seems like we are depriving ourselves from half of a potential workforce. In addition to increasing people’s digital skills, we want to have 20 million digital experts by 2030“(Vestager, 2021).
And yet, equating digital skills with the new working class of a digital economy still is not the end of the problems with digital skills. We also have a problem with defining those skills. The previously mentioned Digicomp model lists 21 competences that vary from “browsing, searching and filtering data” to “identifying digital competences gaps” without going into details about the practicalities of individual tasks.
For example – the skill of identifying digital competences gaps is defined as “To understand where one’s own digital competence needs to be improved or updated. To be able to support others with their digital competence development; and to seek opportunities for self-development. To keep up-to-date with digital evolution,” introducing a very dangerous biological concept of nature-made evolution in the man-made field of digital technologies and services.
In reality, our digital environment is ever more ruled by platforms where many of the digital competences are off-loaded to the platforms themselves and the user is left with limited options. Imagine considering the protection of privacy, one of the competences, on today’s social network environment. Or imagine “managing digital identity” which is described as “to be able to protect one’s own reputation” in today’s world of smear campaigns and digital reputation assassinations where again the platforms are the ones who hold complete control over the published materials and their distribution.
Speaking of platforms, it is fascinating to read the Final report of the Commission expert group on tackling disinformation and promoting digital literacy through education and training published by Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (European Commission) that tries to frame the issue of disinformation and digital literacy and to offer some guidelines for teachers and other members of the educational sector.
The threats of propaganda, disinformation and hateful content is painted as one of the biggest threats to our way of life but instead of calling for regulatory measures and pressure on the owners of the machine, the Commission uses the “personal responsibility” and “learning process” as mechanisms to address these societal threats (European Commission, 14:2022). And despite the fact that researchers have time after time named and shamed individual platforms that are responsible for most of the disinformation and propaganda in our part of the world, the Commission is still using the ambiguous online environment when describing threats and issues in this field.
In the report, Commission seems to compare the digital environment of disinformation with a walk through the forest and writes recommendations on how to avoid poisonous mushrooms by urging the teacher/student to be mindful and attentive. There is not a single sentence dedicated to the financing mechanism of online content production, the role of the black box algorithmic content distribution, of the uneven playing field where advertising and PR agencies, paid disinformation actors and other vectors that help sustaining the manufacturing and distributing the propaganda, dis- and misinformation online.
This aspect is however very visible when examining other reports and comments on the issue. For example, Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner names algorithms, targeted advertising and data harvesting (Khan, 2022) as three main drivers for the spread of disinformation online. Hardly anything an individual user can do about, especially when faced with the almost obligatory presence on the platforms that are performing these tasks. What is even worse, researchers are noting that “minimal efforts have been made to conceptualize propagation of fake news” (Yang, Luttrell, 516:2022).
We can even go a step further and highlight the issue of preconditioned environments that are more susceptible to disinformation and propaganda even before the algorithms, content distribution systems and other digital systems perform their deeds. “Favorable environment for rising and developing disinformation campaigns as an ultimate threat to the democratic values of that society are countries of postwar conflict, countries of most prominent polarized societies, countries with heritage of ethnic and religious divisions and differences, unregulated or fragile media systems, public low trust in media institutions so as high percentage of online and social media users.” (Palloshi Disha, Bajrami, Rustemi, 78:2021).
We can see that the quality of democracy in individual nation countries is also intricately linked to manufacturing, distribution and reception of fake news and propaganda, adding on to the pile of issues that are beyond the scope of individual consumer to address.
Speaking of digital democracies, we inevitably come across the role of a digital citizen. This phantom beast, first represented by an all-seeing all-knowing entity that uses digital tools to analyze, decide and ultimately influence the local, regional and potentially even global political discourse. This independent entity full of wisdom and experience is more and more stuff of fairy tales as the harsh reality of algorithmic black boxes, practices of deceptive design and behind the scene machinations of networks and digital systems descent upon an unsuspected user.
Connecting digital environment with the concept of citizenship seems very odd from the start. Citizens are usually free to move, free to express their opinions, free to participate in the social environment that surrounds them and supports them. In stark contradiction, the online environment in which the digital citizens are captured by the workings of platform capitalism, presents little to none similarities to the purposed digital democracy ideal that we usually have in our minds as we discuss the issues related to it.
Taking a page out of Chinese digital society playbook we can summarize that in reality the digital citizen is nothing more than an aggregate of data points the government and other actors can use in order to predict its wishes and requirements. The more data points there are, the better supposedly the decisions, based on those data points. The role of educating a digital citizen can therefore be summarized with one goal in mind – feeding the machine with as many user data points as possible.
We finally turn to the question of the meaning and reasons to argue for the digital literacy skills teaching and their focus. As we have already established, the human being is constantly being torn between the roles of digital consumer, digital citizen and digital worker when logging online. The digital literacy courses are usually emphasizing the role of the former, as we have already seen the decision-makers are having troubles differentiating between the three roles, usually choosing the latter one as their main focus.
Take Slovenia for example. We have codified media literacy in our local laws for several years, and yet when it comes to its implementation in the field, the results are anything but effective. First problem – almost nobody explains to the students why critical perception of the mass media is important.
Teachers usually do not dare venture into the world of citizenship, political participation and the reason mass media is considered the fourth estate. Even when it comes to fake news debunking, fact checking and critical reading of the mass media messages, the reasons for such activities are usually lacking. “You must be critical, because… you must be!” Anyone who is truly striving to be a critical reader would find this rationale extremely unnerving.
Another problem is the untrained staff. Teachers usually try and adjust the media literacy course to whatever topic they were teaching before they were assigned additional work. So, if a teacher is a linguist, he or she will turn media literacy into writing exercise. If a teacher is from the information technology sector, media literacy will become a techno-deterministic issue. This creates a plethora of “media literacy courses” which are in fact anything but that.
There is also a problem of reference materials used in such courses. Since there is no top to bottom strategy, individual teachers have to resort to their own creativity in order to produce materials for the course. This of course creates another cacophony in the field which furthers the confusion and ineffectiveness of such courses.
Finally – there is no consistency through-out the years of schooling, since everything more or less depends on individual teachers or other members of the teaching staff.
What we need is complimentary action taken by different actors in this field. First – when developing courses of digital literacy, we should also consider the users as citizens and consumers, extending the level of rights protection that already exist in the “offline” world. Empowering digital users in the fields of civic rights and duties and assuring digital environment that is effectively defending those civic rights should be a part of any and every digital skills curriculum.
Second – we need working regulatory frameworks that enable actual and effectual regulation in the field. We have seen too many regulatory attempts that fall flat at the exact moment of their reckoning and incur double harm – they give out a sense of a systemic solution being implemented and at the same time fail at that exact task.
Third – we have to stop believing in the power-user that will possess all of the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to address these issues on its own. This ploy only worked as a regulatory deterrent mechanism, made up by the industry and we need to stop using it as an actual solution to our problems.
Fourth – when developing the digital literacy courses, we need to decide on what is their goal. Are we training better consumers, better workers or better citizens? The mix of all three roles is possible, but not when we are thinking about them interchangeably.
If we are using digital skills to train better consumers, we need to also teach them about the consumer regulatory framework, institutions that are protecting our consumer’s rights and the role of consumers in our society.
If we are using the framework of digital skills to train better workers, then we also need to bring unions into the mix, expand on the topic of ethical development and also focus on the issues of worker’s rights. Finally – if we are using digital skills to train better citizens, we need to adjust the curriculum and also teach them about democratic values, the system of checks and balances and the inevitable connections between individuals and political decision-making.
By not defining the term digital skills and using it interchangeably to project a new citizen, a new worker, a new consumer, we are inflicting harms on the young generations that are growing up in the most brutal example of surveillance capitalism where everything single action and trait is turned into a dataset and sold to the highest bidder. This might be completely unimaginable to people who can still recall the world off line as being the basis of one’s social component of life, but more and more younger generations are living online first, offline second.
Not only that – the same notion of living online first does not tell us anything about their preconditioned experience, skill and competence of navigating this world, even though we are still talking about the so-called digital natives, a term debunked several years ago by its author, Marc Prensky. We should cease to play into the hand of the industry that is still very keen on using the idealistic image of a power user to shift the blame, shed any responsibility and continue its twister, immoral and sometimes even criminal practices.
By starting at the beginning and first defining, then adapting the curriculum to the definition and finally applying the newly adapted skillset in practice, we might usher a new era of digital literacy that has a clear goal and a road to get there. Without it, I am afraid we will just keep going in circles, chasing our own tail and further the development of a digital Frankenstein’s monster that is composed out of rights and skills and wants, not knowing what its place in the world actually is.
I thank you for your time and I am looking forward to your questions and comments during the debate.
- Pollard, S., 1963. Factory Discipline in the Industrial Revolution [online]. Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/2598639
- McFall-Johnsen, M., 2021. The companies polluting the planet have spent millions to make you think carpooling and recycling will save us [online]. Accessed at https://www.businessinsider.com/fossil-fuel-companies-spend-millions-to-promote-individual-responsibility-2021-3
- Allman, K., Blank, G., 2021. Rethinking digital skills in the era of compulsory computing: methods, measurement, policy and theory [online]. Accessed at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2021.1874475
- EU Commission. 2022. DigComp Framework [online]. Accessed at https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/digcomp/digcomp-framework_en
- Vestager, M., 2022. Speech by Executive Vice-President Vestager at the press conference on Europe’s Digital Decade: 2030 Digital Targets [online]. Accessed at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_21_1092
- EU Commission. 2022. Final report of the Commission expert group on tackling disinformation and promoting digital literacy through education and training [online]. Accessed at https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/72421f53-4458-11ed-92ed-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-PDF/source-search
- Khan, I., 2022. In my view: To tackle disinformation, we must uphold freedom of opinion and expression [online]. Accessed at https://www.oecd-forum.org/posts/in-my-view-to-tackle-disinformation-we-must-uphold-freedom-of-opinion-and-expression-d5b370e1-e96c-4273-82b2-332548c38c9b
- Yang, J., Luttrell, R. Digital Misinformation & Disinformation: The Global War of Words [online]. Accessed at https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/978-1-80071-597-420221030/full/pdf?title=digital-misinformation-amp-disinformation-the-global-war-of-words
- Palloshi Disha, E., Bajrami, D., Rustemi, A., 2022. The Online Media Landscape in the Focus of Disinformation Campaigns in the Western Balkans: Albania, Kosova, and North Macedonia [online]. Accessed at https://prizrenjournal.com/index.php/PSSJ/article/view/268