Demystifying Technology · Digital Literacy Reconsidered · Social Justice · Teaching · Technology and Society

A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy, Part 3: Advancing Agency

In a recent post, I highlighted the importance of prioritizing application skills, and the cognitive, socio-emotional, and information competencies that underlie those application skills, within a growing understanding of digital literacy. This follows on an initial post outlining the underlying premise for a growing understanding of digital literacy. Both refer to the importance of wrapping this expanded understanding within a critical sociotechnical perspective if we are to advance our agency with relation to digital technologies. The critical sociotechnical perspective is a framework my colleague Colin Rhinesmith and I worked on together a few years back. I laid out some preliminary thoughts on it a couple years ago in the posts Technology Education and Social Justice and EVERYONE Is a Technology Expert. In this post, I’d like to tie this concept specifically to a growing understanding of digital literacy.

In 1987, Seymour Papert commented on the striking similarity between the child development phase of egocentrism and that of a cultural development phase related to technologies that he called technocentrism:

Egocentrism for Piaget does not, of course, mean “selfishness”– it means that the child has difficulty understanding anything independently of the self. Technocentrism refers to the tendency to give a similar centrality to a technical object — for example computers or Logo. This tendency shows up in questions like “What is THE effect of THE computer on cognitive development?” (In Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking”, Educational Researcher, Volume 16, Number 1.)

In 2014 Microsoft released a commercial called “Empowering” during the U.S. Superbowl. It was narrated by Steve Gleason, former NFL player and dad living with ALS, who used a Microsoft product to turn text into physical voice:

What is technology? What can it do? How far can we go? Technology has the power to unite us. It inspires us. Technology has taken us places we’ve only dreamed. It gives hope to the hopeless. And it has given voice to the voiceless.

In that commercial, I see humans doing amazing, difficult things by using technology to amplify their intent and capacity — I also see technology being given the credit. The point isn’t to pick on Microsoft in particular, but rather to highlight that almost three decades later, we as a culture are still too often stuck within a technocentric phase of development. What will it take to foster the deeper computer criticism Papert called for in that 1987 paper?

Here’s where I think the critical sociotechnical perspective can make a contribution, which is why I see it as foundational within a growing understanding of digital literacy. But first a story.

My Grandfather's Block PlaneThis is my grandfather’s block plane. Imagine him as an apprentice learning the woodworking profession. As he learns his craft, he must take the next step of creating his own tools. He built this block plane to fit him, the type of woodworking he’d be doing, and the type of material with which he’d be working. But this tool is also built within the influences of history and culture. As such, it looks very much like block planes of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s created by Germans living in Russia.

NSocial Shaping of Technologyo technology stands apart from the social. Our historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts, along with our personal biases and preferences, shape the way we not only create tools, but which tools we select to use and how we use those tools. Technology is socially shaped.

But considering further, our technology is shaped at each point within its lifecycle. Certainly innovators and designers leave their mark on any creation, a mark influenced by their social and personal contexts. But so to do the various people within a corporation who might have influence over the further design, production, marketing, and distribution of the new creation. People within government also shape the creation through policies, incentives, and disincentives of various kinds. Formal and informal support providers also shape the creation, as do ultimately the everyday user who further tweaks a creation to fit them and their intended uses.

Such an understanding helps us to understand why Apple smartphones differ so much from Android smartphones, why the same model of smartphone used on the Verizon network works differently than when used on the T-Mobile network, why the same model used in the U.S. work very differently than when used in Europe, why the same model used by me looks rather different than the one my wife uses.

The historical, political, economic, and structural social contexts, along with personal biases and preferences, become embedded into a technology at every stage of that technology’s lifecycle.

Let’s return to my grandfather for a moment. As he continued to use his tools, his physique began to change. Muscles and tendons changed in response to the work. That my grandfather’s block plane fits me is not only a matter of DNA, but also a product of nearly five decades of my own woodworking. mutualshapingdiagram2016Our tools shape us, sometimes physically, often mentally and socially. The type of woodworking my grandfather could do as a journeyman was shaped in part by tools he had available to him. In this way, the social and personal that became embedded through social shaping now live forward through technical shaping of the personal and social.

The development platforms and practices used by innovators and designers shape how they do their work. So too the tools used by corporations, governments, and support providers. And so too the tools used by the everyday user.

In this way, the Microsoft commercial referenced above is not wrong that technology can unite or it can divide. But if viewed from within a technocentric phase of cultural development, we only see technology’s influence on the personal and the social, thereby missing the social influences that shape technology at the same time — we miss the mutual shaping. And we miss how the historical, systemic, and structural contexts of the social and personal that create and perpetuate marginalization and oppression become embedded within the software and the physical, living forward shaping social exclusion.

Earlier I stated that no technology stands apart from the social. As we develop a sociotechnical understanding of our creations, we come to appreciate that, indeed, there is no way to disentangle the social and the technical. They are a single sociotechnical artifact that is beyond the sum of these physical, software, personal, and social parts. The emergent properties are far from neutral or benign, but are rather a complex and intersectional mix of positive, benign, and negative social, personal, and technical influences.

Former Microsoft Researcher Kentaro Toyama notes in his book Geek Heresy and also in his TEDx Talk:

Technology only
human intent and capacity.
It can’t substitute for them.

mutualshapingdiagram2016-mutualshapingandamplificationFrom within a critical sociotechnical perspective, we can begin to unpack how this amplification of human intent occurs not only at the everyday user stage of a sociotechnical product’s lifecycle. Rather, the intent of innovators and developers, corporations, governments, and support providers are amplified in ways that subsequently influence those at a later stage in the artifact’s lifecycle, ultimately influencing the everyday user and those around them. But this magnification of human intent can work its way back up the lifecycle. As such, we see ways that everyday users, support providers, and others are using sociotechnical artifacts to amplify their human intent and capacity to affect governments, corporations, and designers.

Bringing it all home to a growing understanding of digital literacy, a digitally literate person is continuously developing skills to discern the social and personal forces that have shaped various sociotechnical products, and how the embedded social and personal within the software and the physical subsequently shape the personal and social of everyday users. In so doing, the digitally literate personal advances their own agency, and that of their communities, to minimize disruptive and disempowering human intent embedded within specific socially shaped and socially shaping technologies, and maximize their own human intent and capacity in ways more consistent with their values and goals.

In the next blog post, I’ll explore further some unexpected individuals and groups that might serve as a different model of the digitally literate.


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