Digital Literacy in the News

The Guardian is hosting a large digital literacy campaign. (Thanks for the reference via Nana and friends).

Yikes! All the gender, race, technology, and education bromides of yesteryear warmed over and gussied up in a 2012 all-you-can-eat buffet. They’re so clichéd that it would be insufferably dull to list pedantic critiques, so let’s play some party games:

1. Spot the girl-child-of-color receiving her digital training!

In both of the two main campaign-launch photos, the foreground, on the margin and slightly blurred, shows a white child; the center face, in sharp focus, is a girl (varies from Asian- to Afro- British). At first glance simply centering diversity (and contesting the digitial divide) in a standard techno-progress narrative, it also feeds the anti-immigrant / anti-Black narratives that see white British citizens’s education as somehow marginalised, or usurped, by people of color and immigrants. Here the Asian-geek stereotypes and the Afro-British centering would occupy different fear-filled roles in the racist narratives of improving British education. Hmm, a rather clever photo if your intention is to attract a range of left- and right- wing readers to this live blog on digital literacy…

2. Spot the deterministic story about inherent gender differences !

“Geek perception of computer science putting off girls, expert warns.” Groan. There’ve been almost two decades of critique of this model. The article hits all the major stereotypes – everything from spreadsheets to war games is said to be an automatic turn-off for girls – and, believe it or not, it actually ends on a “positive” note by naming Engineer Barbie among girl-encouraging initiatives.

3. Spot the story about university-industry partnerships!

Workers of the future must be digital, not analog. So there’s the warning to schools and universities to look sharp about training workers for real-world employment, or risk becoming dead-end educators. There are predictable quotes from Mercedes engineers and Education ministers about modernising education. The shiny rewards here are slightly more exciting than Engineer Barbie:successful education programmes are offered the chance to create students who will design the next generation’s scenes of Death Eaters flying across the river Thames – this is, surely, enough incentive to cross art, design, and computational pedagogy? Jokes apart, this reminds me of critiques (such as Zelda‘s, or The Simpsons‘) of art-school graduates who are tracked toward sweatshop-design-labour, and also of the untimely death of truly experimental interdisciplinary programmes like ACE.

4.  Spot the Hollywood script !

Yeah, of course, Mark Zuckerberg features in this feel-good story. And there’s the predictable Brilliant-libertarian-geek-versus-Stodgy-Government accompanying story: “What governments don’t seem to understand is that software is the nearest thing to magic that we’ve yet invented.” Not far behind is the summons to change the world by coding it:  “All you need to change the world is imagination, programming ability and access to a cheap PC.” Voilå: ICT4D! Just 3 short steps from hollywood to academic script.

I could go on. There are, of course, good intentions and some nice ideas buried somewhere here, but for the most part, this is vacuous stuff. Party-game jokes aside, it’s depressing, and no laughing matter, that debates on science education in a supposedly progressive newspaper are still framed in such clichéd ways, when they could draw on years of critical work from STS, science education, and popular movements (ranging from the Levellers to Creative Commons). More food for thought for us : we’re in fields that are now becoming more interesting and complex in their insights on these questions, but, apparently, as our understanding improves, we grow more and more distant from the things that get called “real world pragmatics” – those issues that drive the apparent constraints of recession economics. We could easily pick holes in every term in the previous sentence. But also, more practically: I think that more public funding for these purportedly esoteric areas would actually result in measurably better results in many of the areas the Guardian cares about, as well as some of the areas we care about. But sketching that out is a difficult and challenging task (and not one that our careers easily allow time for).


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One Response
  1. Lilly says:

    Oh man, digital lady/girl discourse shocks me for how persistent certain tropes are. But maybe that is just me revealing that I was trained not in history but in Computer Science. The more I read about 150 years ago, the more I see that it’s hard to keep a robust trope down.

    As a historian, tell me, did education reformers during european industrialization advocate for schools that had actual factories in them so students could make sure to learn real-world skills? Or this real-world kills a new phenomenon?

    Have you seen this 80s American kids’ show clip showing Julia Stiles explaining the internet to her school newspaper colleagues?
    “It’s a world where you’re judged by your imagination, not by what you look like. A world where curiousity and imagination equals power,” she says as she strokes the CRT screen with a tremble that seems at once lustful and wounded.

    “Software is like magic. All you need is ability.” Wendy Chun’s causal pleasure has done the best job of anything I’ve read of explaining the magic. I was learning some Ruby on Rails last night and reminded that it exists, but magic is more about surprise, and a promising glimmering of agency (that dissipates when you realize it would take 40 hours to code the simple thing you want). The “all you need is ability” part is insane to me. One of the things most surprising to me trying to learn Ruby with a group last night is how much the internet has made programming even *more* something that requires someone have a community around them to keep up with the rapid changes in open toolkits and frameworks. It’s like someone is inventing new kinds of legos every minute and the only way to keep up, to evaluate, and to select the lego modules that might be around in a week or a year is to give your life over to being part of that community of practice. We absolutely do not need a society only composed of such people. In fact, a society composed of such people will as the means of its survival keep a huge service class that can feed it and clothe it while it makes money out of its magical realm with high barriers to entry.

    You, or we, or difference engines should co-author something and get it published in the Guardian. Janet Vertesi recently published an opinion piece in Forbes calling out the Forbes 30 Under 30 list: