Earlier this year I was one of several folks invited to participate in a focus group tasked with designing a government agency’s digital literacy standards and curriculum. As a warm-up we were asked to draw a cartoon of a digitally literate person and a non-digitally literate person. In general the focus group tended toward clear visual indicators of tribe, like smartphones and other wearable or mobile devices, but there are real and meaningful differences in each type’s expectations about and valuation of information.
My cartoon of a digitally literate person
My cartoon of a non-digitally literate person
Each group engages with data and information differently. How do you recognize it in the wild, intake it, expect to be able to interact with it? How do you actually interact with information? Are you more comfortable with static, independent info or flowing, connected info? Do you keep info to yourself? Do you organize it? How? Do you immediately think of ways to connect it to other info or people?
It’s not about the tech. Not really.
We can help individuals become more digitally literate, and even define what that means, but if we don’t thoughtfully examine the underlying cultural shift that’s emerging we risk losing the useful and valuable parts of our pre-digital culture. We also risk adopting the damaging parts of digital culture. This is already happening: while you might think our workplace culture isn’t particularly digitally literate, we are all exhibiting “continuous partial attention” by keeping part of our awareness on our email inbox and chat window, switching between internet and intranet, having multiple windows open to social media (blogs, i-Space, eChirp) while trying to write a report or otherwise create work product. User interfaces are everywhere, competing for just a few seconds of our braintime (probably to sell us something), and this is bad. We think better when we can actually think about one thing.
In a piece published in the January edition of Computer, Andreas Bulling, a human-computer interface (HCI) researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, argues that winning the sustained attention of technology users (everyone) is perhaps the most pressing and difficult challenge in the entire HCI field. It’s also one of the most pressing problems for IC agencies tasked with providing brilliant and accurate insight to policymakers…and getting their attention long enough to internalize our assessment.
While you may think that we are behind the curve based on the technology we interact with each business day, our culture has started to become digital…now we need to consider the literacy element. That involves knowing how to read when, and which format to choose when writing.
Unsurprisingly, Kevin Kelly has some perceptive things to say about this. In his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, he devotes a chapter to “screening,” one of the forces that will shape our future. We are in a culture clash as massive as the one between the oral tradition and the post-Gutenberg world, but this one is between the digitally literate and the not, or in Kelly’s terms, the People of the Book and the People of the Screen.
The People of the Book make the doctrines of law and the rules of finance. They understand that authority comes from authors. We all get on the same page to do things by the book. The People of the Screen tend to prefer the dynamic flux of pixels over static text, often seeking video or audio rather than print. Screen culture is an endless flow where notions are interlinked and truth is not delivered by authorities but assembled from bits and pieces by the audience. Fixed copies are less valuable than up-to-date information and access. Rules themselves shift around as algorithms that govern behavior are changed.
Ready or not, here it comes
There are 5 billion digital screens today; 3.8 billion will be made next year. By 2020, there will be about 9.7 billion displays on Earth serving up over 5,000 ad-views per day per urban-dwelling person, a 25 percent increase from 2015. This figure doesn’t even include displays found on appliances or in cars. That’s one of the reasons why the leadership of the agency I consulted with believes their workforce needs to be digitally literate (to the degree necessary for their work) and that they need to help get them there. (Of course, the leadership has their own challenges.)
In addition to what the agency wanted from the focus group (what should a knowledge worker in 2016 – 2026 be able to do?) I think leaders also need to help with the tensions and conflicts brought about by the clash between Book Culture and Screen Culture, and ensure that the best of Book Culture is retained as we enter the new era of human cognition. The culture clash between those who like their words to hold still and those who want them flowing and being replicated endlessly is only going to get worse, and its imperative for intelligence and government work that we figure this out.
When today’s era of government structures began, we all got our news nightly from one book-like static source
Now, even if we get our news from the news, it’s an emotional flowing stream of data.
People of the Book
American prosperity and liberty grew out of a culture of reading and writing, so in some Book ways the transition should be easy for us. Words are everywhere; within the next couple years they will migrate from the screens in our pockets to our walls, our tables, any flat surface. The old way of reading was essential in creating literacy, rationality, fairness, science, and the rule of law. It also led us to believe that we know what a book is, but a new understanding of “book” is emerging.
The Book Era gave us things like constitutions. There were rules outside of people, but an intelligent well-framed argument could change them. Linear rationality and critical thinking developed and became expected of everyone. You may think of books as sheafs of paper between covers, but some scholars of literature claim that a book is really that virtual place your mind goes to when you are reading. Kelly:
When you are engaged in this reading space, your brain works differently than when you are screening. Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Instead of skipping around distractedly gathering bits, when you read you are transported, focused, immersed.
Focused reading helps our cognitive skills like reasoning and imagination, but also helps our emotional skills by providing catharsis and teaching empathy. And basically, a book is an attention unit. I love the Muriel Rukeyser quote that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Kevin Kelly states this as “A fact is interesting, an idea is important, but only a story, a good argument, a well-crafted narrative is amazing, never to be forgotten.” An internet meme is not going to change the world, but books and stories have.
On the other hand, each book had to be self-contained. An author had to recapitulate all related information, because there was no way to link out to it. The best we could do was to include a bibliography. That meant that educated readers often had to skim through pages of information they already knew or didn’t care about in order to sift out the new and interesting bits. Deep writing gave authors the chance to fully explore a topic and readers the chance to deeply immerse in it, but it wasn’t good for just-in-time information or information with a short shelf life. For my client, by the time a deeply written and edited report is published, the crisis it’s intended to prevent may be over.
People of the Screen
Modern American prosperity is based around moving information and the non-stop copy machine we call the internet. “Movies, music, and microcode,” in Neal Stephenson’s words, help us dominate the global economy, so in some Screen ways the transition should be easy for us.
The Screen Era gives us things like rich context and information that doesn’t have to be locked to a location or an item. Paradoxically, it also makes it possible to provide location-relevant information, like ratings for a restaurant, information about public art while you are looking at it, or Pokemon. We know that knowledge is a process – you never stop learning – and now we understand that information is also a process. It never stops flowing and never stops changing. The Screen Era makes it much easier to keep learning and questioning and learning more.
Interactive reading such as updating, searching, editing, and curating makes every text more valuable:
Reading is social, and interacting with the text is a social good. Wikipedia is a very large book comprising 34 million pages, most of its words hyperlinked into a tangle of pages. It could be the world’s first networked book, but it won’t be the last. At some point, every book, article, movie, vine, and blog post will be networked into one universal library. The resulting collective intelligence of this synaptically connected library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single isolated book. Kelly:
It’s going to be a big library. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets until now, humans have “published” at least 310 million books, 1.4 billion articles and essays, 180 million songs, 3.5 trillion images, 330,000 movies, 1 billion hours of videos, TV shows, and short films, and 60 trillion public web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current rates) onto 50-petabyte hard disks. Ten years ago you needed a building about the size of a small town library to house 50 petabytes. Today the universal library would fill your bedroom. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your phone.
I told the focus group that if I had to pick one way to help everyone and the organization become more digitally literate, it would be to make links and tags second nature for everyone who works with digitized data (that includes Word documents and Powerpoints).
The link and the tag may be two of the most important inventions of the last 50 years. You make the web smarter when you link or tag something. You help data scientists and Watson and other people. Imagine being able to find what you are looking for at work instantly and accurately. That requires the People of the Screen and the People of the Book to work together, and takes so very little time. While a lot of our workplace systems are still “books” – standalone applications that are weak and nigh-unto-useless due to their isolation – more and more are not. Whenever you create or read anything, think of how it could be linked to something else, and try to do so. Think of the tags that will help other people and our AIs and search engines find it, and tag it. When you need a mental break, grab a random page on Wikipedia and add a link. Store your info where your team can link and tag it.
Also, fight against continual partial attention and give yourself the treat of fully immersing in a good book.