Sunday, March 12, 2023

What Is Digital Literacy?

Photo by Pixabay

 “It’s not computer literacy that we should be working on, but sort of human-literacy.  Computers have to become human-literate.” 

--Nicholas Negroponte

   Architect, MIT Media Lab founder


I can recall before the internet era how submissions to journals used to work.  The author would submit by mail (or rarely, fax), the text was read and evaluated, and you were either in, out, or in for a revision.  Then there is the citation style – of which there are several in academic writing: namely, APA, MLA, Chicago, and others.  Each has a hefty style guide, and each can take years to truly learn for fluent use. 

But these matters were taken care of in-house by the editorial staff, who were clear on what they wanted to see for the final stages.  Digital intelligence is now allowing—make that demanding—that we feed information to programs specialized in resumes, Social Security, tax filing, remote learning, mortgages, and publishing.  In publishing, authors are seeing a major energy transfer to these programs.  The digital effect is layering on an entire new set of skills to the heavy labor of writing and to finally getting manuscripts accepted.  

Move up to the current practice, which is to require the author to fill in a very detailed series of files and boxes, shifting many editorial tasks back to the hopeful submitter.  I sense that this means a work transfer, or mission creep, over to the writer, who slowly but surely is taking on this job.  After all, the author needs the publisher much more than vice-versa--which has always been the case.  Except that now there is a way to draw the work from author time and attention, away from the desks of whatever in-house editors remain active.  It’s a process that expects me to become, without training, part of the editorial process, all without benefit of any consultation with the in-house team.  In effect, I am preparing my own material for review, revising from the review results, then checking dozens of boxes to even meet the digital standard for publication. 

For example, because of the required formats on-screen, I had to stop the process many times to rewrite several sections in order to comply with word counts, formatting, style manual, file renaming, or other content, like the figure captions, calling for revisions.  One of these was the abstract, the most difficult job on the list for any article, presentation, or dissertation. While a previous instruction called for “a short abstract,” when the time arrived to upload it, it was no longer my 250 words but a narrower 100. This news called for a total rewrite, taking several hours.  Encountering a list of similar changes in the process consumed several more hours over more than three days.  Quite a lot to ask for a “single-use” task.  The style handbook compliance -- in this case, Modern Language Association, MLA  9th edition, a tome 367 pages long, is the documentation style – both within the text and organized as notes at the end of the article.   But MLA is not my normal citation style, so add that learning curve (and time burn) into the equation.

This kind of skill demand for automation is also now why a CV must be completely dismantled and reassembled for each customized job application, including course titles and dates, with the exact dates (day and month as well as year) for certificates of graduation, instructors, grades, locations, and other data that can date to many decades ago, proving difficult and time-consuming to reconstruct or validate.  Even the thought of reformulating a resume dozens or hundreds of times must pose a major demotivator to job-hunting.  This outsourcing of finding and entering information is not optional but depends on the strong incentive to comply or lose out. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Digital competence is an assumed skill—but for some, it’s not self-evident how to acquire this toolkit in order to practice it.  And what exactly is the standard of practice?  And how, when, and why does this expectation determine what is demanded, and in which arenas?  In sum, how can this skill be measured?

UNESCO defines a world-wide standard for digital literacy as “The ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship.”  The best way to understand this enlarged view of literacy is to compare it to the functional version: “The ability to read a newspaper, sign a check, and write a postcard.”  This is now merely the baseline for the digital-age literacy test.  New challenges are always emerging, in an endless learning curve.  This makes literacy a constantly moving target, even for the highest elite.        

National digital illiteracy rates persist. The US Department of Education reports that across ethnic divides, computer literacy is another basis of unequal opportunity, with 11% White, 22% Black, and 35% Hispanic adults less than fluent in digital media.  Even 5% with Associate degrees aren’t literate, as well as a higher 41% without high school diplomas.  The digital divide still halts universal access (Rockefeller Institute of Government, July 2022). 

Moving forward, for the “blind review” process, I had to “anonymize” most of the content, a strange ritual of removing anything linked to my name from anything linked to my work to shield from reviewers’ eyes.  This was a skill I didn’t have and haven’t needed—until now.  This meant I had to completely omit key content that would have given away my identity.  But there was no way of working around these statements—they had to go.  These deletions would have explained why I was submitting to this particular journal rather than any other, a key point of the rationale important to selling the article: that this is a follow-up to my previous one, now widely cited, published in the past century. * 

In effect, the uploading task amounts to learning new software – for a single operation.  The same goes for thesis and dissertation projects.  They impose a high demand for mastery over a documentation system that too often gets applied just once – and at the same time must be skilled enough to pass and graduate with the degree.  Just the uploading operation itself is a self-taught process without any real way of knowing what will be asked for—or why.  All this effort is applied atop the already “sunk cost” (term from economics) of months or even years of writing and research. It’s distressing to think about whether this submission process reduces the chances of the less-digitally literate of being published.  From my own experience, there is no question that this dynamic is actively operating to favor the tech literate.   And as a colleague in the data world puts it, what’s being tested for is compliance over competence. 

Seeking out an equalizer, I was able to recruit a long-time colleague, an excellent “explainer” and recently retired software engineer.  “I’m sure if you had cast your annoyance aside momentarily you could have easily done the same [anonymizing a document],” he noted.  In fact, there is a relatively simple set of steps to remove “Author” from the Track Changes program.  You just need to know where to look.   

Like productivity expert David Allen, who has admitted to being “semi-literate” in his classic Getting Things Done, I must concede this status is just not enough anymore. David Herlich, my coach that night, agrees, up to a point.  He created, a personal consultation service which aims to explain the complexities of sports to brand-new participants.  He told me I was just like many of the people he has met and hopes to serve.  “I didn’t really do anything,” he says, “except to help you see what you could already do.”  It is the frame of mind, not knowledge, that blocks performance.  This insight certainly fuels learning as discovery of one’s own powers. 

And yes, the Internet helps.  But what I’ve noticed is that there is always more than one answer to any question, raising the problem of distinguishing between answers to pick the one to go with.   You really never know if you got that right—without an explainer with an expert perspective.  


*“Disneyland and Walt Disney World:  Traditional Values in Futuristic Form,” Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 1981: