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

A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy, Part 4: Exercising Agency

A couple years back there was a surprising major news story that caught people’s attention: Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent! Stories started coming out about other technology chief executives and venture capitalists who likewise limited or completely blocked access to digital technologies. In part, Jobs and others site concern about addictive behavior, especially to consumptive technologies. But, it was also noted that Jobs valued family dinnertime conversation, “discussing books, history, and a variety of things” without disruption from digital technologies.

My son, Eric, and I have disagreed over the value of Farmbot, an open-source DIY precision agriculture machine for the backyard. He has suggested that it is a way to get people, and especially young people, who find gardening old school, excited about growing their own things. In so doing, it may become a hook to get people to also begin learning more about the rich ecosystems around them. He further points out that it is a way to wisely use limited resources like water. I’ve countered that it has a significant potential to continue a land-as-resource-to-be-controlled-and-mined mindset that drives us to make bad environmental, financial, and ethical choices. I’ve also pointed out that even in doing all the work to build the unit yourself, the cost is near $1000, money that could be wisely spent elsewhere. Further, significant time is put into electronics, not interaction with the earth, to build and maintain the device, drawing us away from building a relationship with community that includes the more-than-human. This is but a summary of a much longer ongoing back-and-forth conversation.

The point in these two examples isn’t to champion a specific “right” choice. Rather, it is an attempt to illustrate what I believe is an important aspect of an expanded understanding of digital literacy — values-based critical reasoning. Clearly, choices regarding digital technology selection and use have ramifications, taking us down diverging paths. Far from being predetermined and irrevocable, our choices can be carefully considered in advance of selection, and throughout the lifecycle of use by reflecting on our values and those influencing the design, manufacture, and distribution of a sociotechnical artifact. And when we have limited information to guide in such reflection, we can select and begin use with the best information at hand, then experimentally work to intuit such influences through the impact using the artifact has on our lives and the lives of those around us. Too often we blithely or even fatalistically give in to specific technological adoptions as “just the way things are done today” without asserting our personal agency in the matter. And if we don’t like the results, we’re inclined to blame ourselves as digitally illiterate. Surely if we just knew how to use the thing better, we, too, would experience the promised life-transforming benefits.

Not long ago I had a couple of conversation with people from an organization that went through a transition from Google office and communication software to Microsoft office and communication software. In both cases, tangential to the purpose of our meeting they made side comments regarding not being very digitally literate. When I asked why they thought that, they pointed to how they used to be able to function well on email and in sharing documents, but now are constantly struggling to get simple tasks done. Rather than questioning the external design choices that led to very different products, they internalized failure to effectively use the new products as illiteracy.

Or in another recent incident, I was asked to help someone who was finding it impossible to print something out using both sides of the paper. After some frustrating time poking around, I was able to descend through three different sub-windows to find an option to turn on duplex, long-edge binding. The person proceeded to apologize to me for being so stupid. I responded asking why was it that the software vendor thought it appropriate to bury this option within some obscure advanced options settings using archaic publisher language.

In both these cases, the people involved were highly accomplished professionals with a vast array of skills. I would argue for both digital illiteracy wasn’t marked by not having a specific technical skill, but rather only to the extent that the people internalizing blame in themselves as incompetent rather than in being able to critically reason how there might be misalignment between the historical, cultural, economic, political, and other social influences, as well as the personal preferences and biases, of those who shaped the development and distribution of a product, and the social and personal influences, preferences, and values of themselves and their own communities. But rather than blaming the victim, I appreciate how Carol Dweck, Reshma Saujani, and others are raising awareness of how acculturation shapes such socio-emotional and cognitive responses, and providing methods for countering such culturally-prescribed exclusionary forces.

My mom, who lives in Michigan, doesn’t touch a computer and has no interest in doing so. If she needs to chat with my sister, who lives in Australia, she asks my brother to setup a call using his computer. Likewise, my brother prints out emails from my sister so that my mom can read them, and types up the messages she wants to send over to my sister. But when it came time to buy a new car, my mom decided a used Prius had the best match of features to what she needed. Indeed, the computerized dashboard had many more features than she needed or wanted. She’s had little problem, though, learning to use that computerized dashboard to do those things she does want to do through selective reading of the manual or by having someone demonstrate its use.

My mom is of a time and culture that believed in self-sufficiency, community, and careful conservation of time and material resources. Digital technologies are like any other tool — they are picked up and used when it makes clear sense, but are left aside when it doesn’t. If someone else in the community already possesses the tool and the skill, and if it makes sense to collaborate and trade resource, time, and talent, then by all means do that instead of duplicating time and money expenditure. In so doing, my mom and my brother each contribute their unique talents and resources to a greater community effort.

Ultimately, digital technologies aren’t to be avoided at all cost, but neither are they to be embraced at all cost. People-oriented values and goad are always kept in the forefront.

This brings to mind a case study by scholar Howard Rheinegold I came across a number of years ago related to the Amish and cellphones. As noted by Rheinegold, “Far from knee-jerk technophobes, these are very adaptive techno-selectives who devise remarkable technologies that fit within their self-imposed limits.” Each unique Amish community works to anticipate how a technology might fit or not fit within their values and goals. Initial experiments with the technology are made. Then at some time point during experimentation, the community comes together to critically analyze and discuss the impact the technology is having on the community’s ability to live within their community-defined values and to achieve their community-defined goals. If technology use is coming into conflict with these, they consider whether further adaptations to the technology or further social constraints on its use can be made in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm. If not, then the technology is put aside.

There’s a decades-old framework called the digital divide that highlights the wide disparity between those, often economically disadvantaged, rural, elderly, or physically disabled, who do not have access to digital technologies and the skills to use them, and those who do. Also considered within this digital divide paradigm is relevance, or the lack of awareness of relevance in the lives of those on the wrong side of the digital divide. My mom and the Amish can readily be identified as falling on the wrong side of the digital divide. But within an expanded understanding of digital literacy, I would suggest they reasonably digitally literate.

There are certainly deeply problematic economic, political, structural, and systemic forces of exclusion that keep some from having access to digital technologies and the skills to use them. But simply working to address resource access does not address the root of the problem nor does it meaningfully address the symptoms — restricted agency to fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy. Agency and the forces of exclusion restricting agency do not merely or even primarily reside in material or financial resources, or in technical skills.

Rather, we need to consider how cognitive, socio-emotional, and information skills come together with a critical perspective to advance techno-selectivity both in advance of, and also following, product adoption and adaptation. As Dorothea Kline notes in her Choice Framework, such exercise of agency requires existence, sense, use, and achievement of choice. This is at the heart of a growing understanding of digital literacy, as exemplified by not only Steve Jobs and other technology CEO’s, but also by the Amish and my mom.


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