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Can digital literacy save the web?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Sir Tim Berners-Lee revealed his concerns about the state of the web to which his name is now forever attached. He identified three main areas of concern:  

  • We’ve lost control of our personal data
  • It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
  • Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

In an age of fake news and malicious cyber attacks, Sir Berners-Lee’s intervention couldn’t be more timely. What links these trends is digital literacy; a combination of technical awareness and a critical aptitude to properly interrogate both the messages and the means through which they’re delivered in the public sphere. The argument is often made that we should teach kids to write code just as they are taught to read - but the problems Sir Berners-Lee has identified highlights that we need a more sophisticated approach that focuses on developing engaged digital citizens. We need people to properly understand the issues brought about by the latest digital revolution, because at the moment, there are far too many people left behind.

This failure of digital literacy is ultimately caused by a lack of ‘digital equality’. This is something Sir Berners-Lee is helping to fight through the World Wide Web Foundation’s five year strategy - ‘using the web to build a more equal world’. If you’re asking why, fear not, they have the answer here:   

...despite the wave of creativity, innovation and collaboration unleashed by the web, the reality is that today, the web is not for everyone. In fact, the digital revolution is creating new patterns of privilege and discrimination. It is causing job losses and wage polarisation as well as productivity gains; it risks taking away our privacy and autonomy even as it gives ordinary citizens new powers; it is isolating us in filter bubbles as well as connecting us across borders; and it is amplifying voices of fear and hate just as much as voices for tolerance and rationality. 

What’s great about this is that the foundation recognises that the web isn’t simply going to bring about progress by the sheer fact of its existence. While it’s hopeful, this isn’t any straightforward tech-utopianism. 

Policy making is likely to be crucial, but it’s important to focus on what really matters - giving people the skills they need. Yes, being able to write code will be essential - but there’s more to it than that. 

In fact, one of the most important things for anyone to understand is that ‘technology’ or ‘digital’ aren’t alien concepts that are owned by some nefarious corporation. Of course, sometimes it looks that way, and there’s an argument to say that we’re moving dangerously close to that sort of situation, given that technology - as it is experienced by consumers, and as it is built by developers and engineers - is dominated by truly monolithic (yet innovative) organisations like Google.

It’s that sort of attitude that prevents people from seeing themselves as part of what might be called the social dimension of digital life and technology - or rather, a new form of public space wherein we use, and help to develop technology together.

Similarly, it’s that sort of attitude that governments can exploit. See, for instance, the way in which the British government have (perhaps wilfully) misunderstood encryption. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has effectively insinuated WhatsApp are aiding terrorism in their refusal to cooperate with security services. Of course this isn’t true - the fact is, that WhatsApp’s ability to cooperate compromises everyone’s security. And that, really, is the wider point about digital literacy - it’s about realising that things like ‘technology’ or ‘digital space’ belong to all of us.

Security: awareness is the first stage in the creation of smart digital citizens

When it comes to security people begin to take more control once they properly understand how their data is stored, who’s tracking them, and how. It’s no surprise, for example, that people who use password managers are pretty likely to be working in the tech industry. Those are the people, after all, who know just how easy it is for someone to gain access to your information. By the same token, they probably also understand just how flimsy many of the large software architectures of even the most well-established enterprises and institutions really are. 

Learning how software is built demystifies its power

It’s easy to mythologise the web - it seems to have a mystique whereby it’s seen as a force for great evil or great good. The statement put out by the Web Foundation, for all its clarity and sincerity, plays up to this. It is amplifying voices of fear and hate just as much as voices for tolerance and rationality - you can be sure something similar was said about the Gutenberg Press hundreds of years ago. 

However, it’s only once people begin to see the web as a thing that is built, constantly redesigned, remade and redeployed, that it will begin to lose its mystique. It’s only a tool after all - we’re not trapped by it. Like any historical moment the technology at our disposal sets limits on what we can literally do, but that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are people behind the websites we use everyday. There are people behind the algorithms that appear to have their own robotic logic. 

It’s because of this that we should be sceptical of the ‘from above’ approach suggested by the foundation - in fact, real digital equality - and, hopefully, wider political and social equality - can be achieved by giving people access to the skills they need to not only better understand the software they use, but also to build it themselves. 

Technology leads to problems when it's controlled by a specific group of people. It’s then that it feels alien to us and beyond our control. Let’s change that by giving people more control, more skills - let’s start thinking more about digital literacy.

Richard Gall, Communications Manager, Packt
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Richard Gall is Communications Manager at Packt.