Community Engagement · Demystifying Technology · Education · Teaching · Technology and Society

Demystifying Technology: The Fundamentals

Demystifying Technology has become our catchall phrase for our particular approach to digital literacy education. The approach has now been implemented both in professional education courses at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and also in digital literacy workshops and one-on-one technical support sessions for community members for both children/youth and adults offered through projects supported through the Center for Digital Inclusion. We stand in agreement with the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, who in their bulleted list of principles state that:

Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.

But we go even further in recognizing all technology implementations are continuously co-created. The next time you are with a group of people with smartphones, take a minute to notice all the different ways people have personalized their devices, and how each person uses it differently at different times throughout the day as a result of changing context. This is but one example of what Ron Eglash calls appropriating technology, or what Bruce, Rubens, and An call innovation-in-use. When technical artifacts are effectively designed, they open up opportunities for what Fischer and Herrmann call user-as-designer. So expanding on the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition’s statement above, we work to demystify technology to the point where we can not only use it, but we can choose to daily co-create our innovations-in-use as a user-as-designer and community-as-designer.

There are three primary legs supporting the Demystifying Technology stool:

  1. Computational Thinking (CSTA has a helpful operational definition for K-12 education that I find helpful for adult education as well). Computation thinking is a problem-solving process that breaks problems into logically organized, discrete parts, and then seeks to find ways to automate solutions through algorithmic thinking. It further works to identify, analyze, and implement possible solutions and to generalize and transfer the process to a wide variety of problems. In addition, design thinking is a helpful extension to improve creative problem solving and user-centered design (see a helpful toolkit applying design thinking to libraries developed by IDEO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a more complete introduction to design thinking).
  2. Critical Interpretive Sociotechnical Framework. Distilled down, this framework recognizes that all technical artifacts, including their production and distribution mechanisms, policy-of-use, support, and end-of-life expectations and procedures, are comprised of a physical component, a software component, a human component, and a social component. Further, as Fischer and Herrmann point out, while the technical layers are “produced and continuously adapted to provide a reliable, anticipatable relationship between user input and the system’s output”, the social layers “cannot be planned and controlled with respect to the final outcome … They can only—if ever—be understood afterwards and not in advance.” In addition, Wajcman (2009, “Feminist theories of technology”. Cambridge Journal Of Economics, 34(1), 143-152. doi:10.1093/cje/ben057) among others notes how the social and technical are mutually shaping, such that our social frames shape the formation of the technical layers, which in turn shape the social layers. As such, without a critical lens that questions the historical context and existing power relationships, technical artifacts can intentionally and unintentionally come to reinforce exploitation, marginalization, and cultural imperialism. As an icebreaker for some demystifying workshops, we will ask people as they enter to draw a picture of an innovator innovating. We will then ask everyone to introduce themselves, to describe a way they’ve taken something they have and used it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used to solve a problem, and then to describe their picture. While everyone gives an example of a way they’ve innovatively used stuff they have, virtually everyone draws a picture of a white male working alone in a lab as a representative of an innovator. Our understanding of technology and innovation has been shaped to consider only certain forms of technology and innovation, and primarily that done by one segment of the population. A critical interpretive sociotechnical framework encourages people to more broadly and critically define technology, their own expertise and influence over technology, and the ways they are shaped by technology when primary power over technology is ceded to one segment of the population.
  3. The need for a true revolution of values. Later in his speech “Beyond Vietnam” delivered to the Riverside Church in New York City in April, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes John F. Kennedy to say “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” In the same paragraph, King calls for a radical revolution of values on which he expounds on in the rest of his speech with paragraphs that start with “A true revolution of values will…” He concludes the paragraph by stating the oft-quoted idea that:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

As highlighted above, a critical interpretive sociotechnical lens can help us begin to identify ways in which our machines and computers — our technical artifacts — can systematize and normalize profit and property priorities over people. Today, the tools needed to support community-based collaborative spaces will likely be digital. But the danger is that many of our tools have been developed based on problematic priorities if our goal is to support peaceful revolution. Instead, they often systematize injustices, as highlighted by Virginia Eubanks (also see her book, Digital Dead End) and Brendan Luyt, among others. We need a true revolution of values, and tools consistent with that revolution of values, if we are to achieve this goal. We need to work to develop everyone’s technology expertise in all forms as understood from within a critical interpretive sociotechnical lens. Our use of technology and engagement in community need to focus on social change that is both an participatory, action-oriented cycle to address immediate issues AND ALSO a work to develop community knowledge power. Our work doesn’t begin assuming we understand an issue or have the solution for that issue, but it begins with dialog rooted in love, faith, humility, mutual trust, and hope. It advances as we develop the skillsets needed to allow us to engage across difference in ways that preserve and prize the differences for their unique lenses–that is, pluralism. It recognizes our interdependence with humans and more-than-humans locally and across the globe, and stands with Dr. King when he says that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And especially critically, it fights magical thinking that technologies will address our issues, and instead appreciates that issues are first and foremost social issues needing social solutions, some of which may be facilitated through appropriate technologies.

Ultimately, demystifying technology isn’t so much a discrete product as much as it is a process that needs to be adapted to fit each different context. The Digital Literacy for ALL Learners project is working to develop both the fundamentals and the nuts and bolts to foster broader implementation of the approach, and we invite you to join us on this journey as we seek many different voices and ways of knowing to help bring into emergence a true revolution of values in how we do digital literacy.

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