I really enjoyed this conversation with podcast host Lawrence Almeida on the Critical Future Tech podcast (although I don’t enjoy the sound of my own voice enough to listen all the way back through it!). Click on the button below to listen, or follow this link: https://criticalfuture.tech/issue-10-august-2021-kira-allmann-0242ac130003/
Lawrence – Welcome! Today we have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Kira Allmann.
Kira is a post-doctoral research fellow in Media, Law and Policy at the Oxford Center for Socio-Legal Studies. Her research focuses on digital inequality, how the digitalization of our everyday lives is leaving people behind and what are the communities doing to resist and reimagine our digital futures at a local grassroots level.
Kira, welcome to Critical Future Tech.
Kira – Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
L I’m really happy to have you for this tenth edition of Critical Future, which is a project that aims to ignite critical thought towards technology’s impact in our lives.
I am passionate about the positive impact of technology, but also I’m equally obsessed with the potential negative side effects that it can bring, right? And you are someone that has clearly a lot of interest in understanding and reducing digital marginalization. And I realized that when I read the Digital Exclusion Report that you did, for the Oxfordshire county libraries right?
Before we get into all the topics that I want to go through with you, I want to just talk a little bit about what may be a digital divide by going through the story that you have in that report.
For the listeners, the report starts with a small story.
“A man that approaches a staff member of a public library. And the staff member is kind of swamped in customer help requests here and there. That man asks for a phone charger. Not a power outlet, right? A phone charger. And the staff member says they don’t provide those for customers at which point the man says that he’s actually homeless and he has no way of charging his phone. He’s asking for that help ’cause he wants to charge his phone for a bit. So the staff member realizes that this isn’t your regular digital help request and ultimately they’re able to find a charger for that man, which allows him to charge his phone.”
So you volunteered as a digital helper for that library, right? And what I want to ask you is: was that the moment that made you become interested or that made you sensitive towards this sort of digital divide? Was that the first time or were you subject to that before that?
K That’s such an interesting question, thank you for that. It actually was not the precise moment that got me interested in the role that libraries were playing in bridging the digital divide. It was actually, remarkably, one of many such moments that I had experienced.
I started volunteering at the library in part, because I did have a broad awareness of the digital divide in the UK. It was the focus of the research that I was just starting actually at that time in my postdoctoral research fellowship on digital inequality. And really, I just kind of wanted to give back.
When I set out to volunteer in the library, I didn’t actually have any intention for it to turn into a research project or a collaboration with the county council library at all. It was really just something I wanted to do for the community. But it became really apparent that from day one – and I unfortunately can’t remember the specific scenes I saw on day one – it became really apparent that this was actually a really important site for observing the lived experience of digital exclusion on the ground.
In talking with fellow digital helper volunteers, other people who were doing the same kind of volunteering that I was doing, and also the library staff, I also learned that it was just really difficult for the library to keep track or document or collect data given how thinly spread they were on the ground on the really vital work they were doing to help people like the man that I described in the opening scene.
So I thought I had access to the amazing resources of a great university institution, if I could somehow kind of put those resources toward helping the library, get a bit better data on the work they were doing and to kind of spotlight what was happening on the ground then that seemed like a really good use of those university resources.
So that’s actually how the project came about, through constant conversation with the library staff members that I was working with everyday.
But to return to your original question,only that was really just one of many scenes that I observed as a digital helper in the library. Certainly not necessarily the first or only one that made me think differently about where we should be studying the digital divide.
“The digital divide is actually a very complex concept that is very important because it has become a key contributor to inequality.”
L Awesome. That intro showed that digital divide can be manifested in many ways. So I’m going to ask you, can you tell us what is the digital divide?
K Well actually it is a little bit difficult to pinpoint a single definition of the digital divide.
I think that when most people use the term in a kind of colloquial everyday conversation, what people have in their minds is the gap between people who have access to the internet and maybe internet connected devices like computers and smartphones, and those who don’t have that access. That’s kind of the simplistic “haves and have nots” kind of dichotomy. That’s the basic idea that a lot of people have in their minds.
But the digital divide as you’ve rightly pointed out is a lot more complex and nuanced than that and to call it “the” digital divide is probably a little bit misleading, but we all do it, I do it as well.
There are actually quite a lot of intersecting overlapping compounding divides that have a digital component to them.
Let me start by just quite simply explaining how scholars think about the digital digital divide.
Scholars, basically, have stated that there are three levels of the digital divide.
The first level being the one I just articulated, which is a divide between those who have and don’t have access to the internet.
The second level is more of a divide in skills and literacy. This is basically saying you may have access to the internet, but you may not actually be able to use those resources to their fullest capacity because you just don’t have the knowledge of how to use them. And obviously there are many layers of skills and literacy that might come into play on that level, the second level.
The third level is really on outcomes. How do you take your access and your skills and literacy and turn them into meaningful, positive outcomes in your life. Meaning maybe attaining greater educational opportunities or greater economic gain.
Those three levels are kind of broadly what scholars talk about when they talk about the divide, but even that is a little flattening at times, because drawing those clear dividing lines between the levels is often very difficult. They all intersect with one another and affect one another in various ways. And of course, within each of those levels, there are a lot of nuances and differentiations.
Also the experience of being digitally excluded is often compounded by other forms of inequality. Things like linguistic inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality, socioeconomic inequality. All of these kinds of what we might call quite simplistically, offline inequalities, compound and affect people’s access to digital resources like the internet and digital devices, but also how they use them and what kinds of experiences they may have online, let’s say when they do get online.
So basically the digital divide is actually a very complex concept that is very important because it has become a key contributor to inequality. If you’re interested in inequality, digital is a space that we all need to be looking all the time. And to relegate it actually to just the issue of internet access, for instance is really kind of an oversimplification.
L Yeah, but that’s the most visible that you can go for. Especially since the pandemic where everyone is remote there were a lot of cases in the U.S., in Europe, places where you would think everyone has access to stable, reliable internet, where that’s not really the case.
And that is also one of the things that I read when researching some of your work on rural areas and how they can be impacted and even how they can overcome that with the example of the community-led internet that has fiber optics, that is really an incredible story.
One thing that you mentioned when I first heard your talk was: I can have a reliable internet connection, but because I don’t have a high income I don’t have a Mac or I don’t even have a computer. The only thing that I have is my mom’s smartphone.
That was very interesting because you believe that any youngster, they are all literate. They can all work with Excel and do spreadsheets and so on. And that’s not really the case because of that example that you gave.
That was for me, very interesting, because that is also a way of divide, right? Again, you lack the hardware in this case to learn and when you arrive to the marketplace, you’re actually at a disadvantage towards other people that have had the experience of using say, you know, like a spreadsheet software or something like that.
K Absolutely. And actually that was something that I observed and that was told to me in various interviews during the library project as well.
This issue of making assumptions, for instance, about what kind of people will have access to what kinds of devices and you spotlighted two key assumptions that often permeate expectations about the digital divide.
One is that, basically, wealthier countries like European countries and the United States don’t have a digital divide problem because the internet is ubiquitous. This is an assumption that is definitely false as the pandemic has actually quite starkly revealed. And another assumption is that young people are “digital natives” which is a term that I think has been thoroughly critiqued and debunked by other fantastic scholars and policymakers. But it’s this idea that basically young people kind of grow up around technology, so they won’t have any deficiencies in terms of digital literacy or access. They’ll be absolutely fluent in things like Excel like you mentioned. They’ll be fluent in smartphones, laptops, iPads, everything.
The reality is that that just isn’t true. What you see in a place like public libraries, you see a lot of kids coming in, for instance, who only have access to a smartphone. And when it comes to, say, printing a document off that they need, for some reason, maybe it’s a payslip or something like that they really don’t know how to use even a keyboard and a mouse. And this was something I heard from a lot of staff members that many of the students they were dealing with were pretty flummoxed by the setup of a desktop computer.
Even things like entering passwords, for instance, into a desktop version of a platform like Gmail. Because a lot of us actually rely on saved passwords and fingerprint ID and things like this on smartphones, we don’t retain a memory of what our passwords are and when we suddenly have to enter it on a different platform, we get locked out.
This is something you see a lot, especially among young people who really only have single device literacy. That’s something that I tried to highlight a little bit in the library report, and I’ve certainly brought it up in other forms as well around education and digital inequality, because it tends to be kind of an invisible form of digital inequality, largely because of those assumptions that people make about certain demographic groups.
L The single device literacy is an interesting term that also takes me to an idea which is: the ecosystem of platforms and systems that you may interact with — even just on a smartphone, if that’s the only thing that you got — is becoming more and more reduced.
For instance, in some countries, basically, Facebook is the internet, you know? That’s where you search, that’s where you read about things that others share. And the same ecosystem also exists when you have packages where for X euros or pounds you will get free access to Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and a couple of other things which have unlimited data so you are going to navigate that universe almost exclusively, but not necessarily Wikipedia articles which will use your data plan and then you will pay for that.
K Yeah, you’re absolutely right and the term that I usually apply to this phenomenon you’re describing, this kind of echo chamber phenomenon, is proprietary literacy.
I basically mean that a lot of users who have limited access and their access is through say a platform like Facebook, they become very fluent in that platform and that company’s toolkit basically, but nothing really beyond that company’s toolkit.
So another great example of this (well not great in the sense of positive, it’s just a good example to further illustrate the point) is the prevalence of, for instance, Google Classroom in schools that are under connected to the internet. Google has stepped in and a lot of cases where schools can’t afford or have limited connectivity for various reasons to get devices and internet access.
Google has stepped in to help provide tools for students to be able to get online and develop skills but usually these students then only have access really to the Google suite of software and even Google hardware like Google Chrome books. And what happens is those students wind up growing up sort of really familiar with Google and not that comfortable, not that fluent in other platforms, other proprietary software and other kinds of hardware.
I’ve spoken to teachers in rural schools that are members of the Google Classroom program who say that their students basically only want to use Chromebooks and that when they have the opportunity to get a device for the first time, what they want is that Google device and it’s not surprising because the devices that they have access to in the school are exclusively Google products.
And so that is also, I would argue, a very limited form of digital literacy. It’s quite narrow this platform or proprietary literacy.
“If we want that imaginative space to be open, it’s best to cultivate literacy in a wide range of platforms and devices and also to think about digital use less as an issue of consumption than it is an issue of participation.”
L That is very interesting. And I don’t want to get into monopoly or antitrust thoughts right now but my question is: if you have a device, say the Google Chromebook, you use all of Google’s apps and Chrome and so on and all of that allows you to interact with society, right? So you’re able to pay your taxes to consult anything that you may want and work and communicate and you’re able to do that in that ecosystem from Google, what’s the problem with that?
What is the problem of being locked into that ecosystem? Or do you see any problem with that, that person can live a digitally included life?
K Arguably this phenomenon is not new. Throughout the history of technology there tend to be kind of dominant technologies that lots of people buy into, they become more fluent and literate in the one that they know. I remember for instance, I had a school that bought a lot of Apple products when I was a kid and so I was a lot more comfortable with Apple products because that was what I had.
It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon but I think there is a reason to be sort of just critical about it to kind of stick with that theme. That’s because we do live in a much more diverse digital space than a monopolistic one. In fact, there are lots of different products out there, there are lots of different companies competing and arguably we want to live in an innovative dynamic future in which new ideas are generated and there will be new companies and new products and maybe even alternative ownership models for platforms and things like that.
If we want that imaginative space to be open it’s best, I think, to cultivate literacy in a wide range of platforms and devices and also to think about digital use less as an issue of consumption than it is an issue of participation.
The thing about having sort of proprietary literacy as the predominant form of literacy, especially for digitally excluded communities – the communities that have limited access – what tends to happen is that these users are really being cultivated as future consumers of products. They’re being motivated, they’re nudged to buy products that are produced by a particular company.
You may have various views on the usefulness or the value of that socially but arguably it could potentially reduce competition in the long run and it also views children, the student users of these platforms as consumers first and citizens second.
I would suggest that that isn’t really encouraging the kind of diversity and dynamic thinking that we need in terms of building a more inclusive digital future in the long run.
L Thank you. That’s a great answer and touches on something that I want to talk about a little bit later, which is Critical Tech Literacy. We’re hinting a lot about people being critical of things, even though they are great to be used like Apple and Google products. And by the way, Apple is also another company that’s very keen on having a foothold on education.
So talking about digital divide: we understand that it’s a complex issue and it is manifested in different ways.
I am a technologist, I’m a software engineer. I build products online for users around the world and I already know about some things that can contribute to digital exclusion such as: it’s English only or it requires fast connections for you to connect so if you can’t go for that, then my product doesn’t work for you and I’m excluding you.
Those sorts of things are kind of known for the more attentive technologists and so my question is: what are some things that can hint at digital exclusion? Putting aside those obvious hurdles that I just mentioned, what are things that I could be on the lookout for or that maybe I’m not aware of as I’m building new digital products that I can look for and anticipate and incorporate into my solutions?
K Of course it’s very difficult to anticipate what a better kind of more inclusive build will be without talking to users.
I’m an anthropologist so I always believe that the best way to get a sense of what’s actually happening on the ground in people’s real lives is to observe them in their everyday lives, doing ordinary things. It tends to be very revealing. And this is slightly different than arguing for something like user driven design which I also think is a very important aspect of design development.
But what you’re asking is: how do you undercut your own assumptions? And that’s very difficult because it’s very hard for all of us to be so self-aware that we can be conscious of our own assumptions that we build into our technologies.
Usually the best way to do that is to step out of our own perspective and occupy somebody else’s perspective for a while.
I can give an example of this from a conversation I had with a library staff member, actually in Oxfordshire libraries, who runs tablet and smartphone sessions mostly for pensioners — for elderly folks — in the community. He was saying there are all these symbols that especially tablets and smartphones use to navigate around menus that a lot of older folks just don’t really understand. I mean they can functionally touch things and they know that an application will open if you touch this thing and things like that but there are things that are just not intuitive to a certain generation.
For instance how on earth would you know that a little circle with a line coming out of it is a magnifying glass, and that means “search”? I tend to refer to this as the visual vernacular of platforms or apps.
There are a lot of sorts of things that we have intuitively come to understand as users of digital technology that aren’t necessarily universal. The sort of three lines that indicate a menu – you can expand into a menu – a lot of people find that confusing. A lot of older folks don’t see a camera app icon as being a camera. It doesn’t look like a camera to them, it’s like a circle inside a square and they say things like “how is this a camera”?
“The issue is that digital inclusion isn’t a switch that just gets turned on at some point and then it’s always on. It’s actually more of a process where people can fall in and out of being included over the course of their lifetimes.”
L To be honest I threw that question out there not expecting a bullet list of things.
The first thing is of course be aware that your users may have special needs that your product doesn’t account for. Of course understand your users, understand for who you’re doing the product or the service that you’re building. Talking with them is essential.
Right now you were talking about the icons and it’s funny because sometimes I’ll be prototyping some interface and I’m like: “all right I need a search icon here”. So I go on this website that gives me a lot of free and paid icons and I just type “search” and I have a lot of magnifying glass icons, you know?
So there is this notion that like “that is a search icon”, you know? At least for web developers and designers and so on. If I say to my designer colleague “put a search icon here”, he’s not going to put anything else besides that. And it’s interesting that some groups may not realize that.
Do you think that that will come to an end at some point? We’re going to have a generation that has interacted so much with those interfaces that at some point do you think this gap is going to narrow itself because everyone is a bit more digital native to some extent, or is new technology going to come up like VR or AR glasses and then our generation, we’re going to be like “whoa, I cannot reason with this” [laughs]. Do you think that’s going to be the case?
K It’s probably unlikely to be totally eradicated. This problem is very unlikely to totally go away and that’s for a few reasons.
You highlighted one of them, which is that technology changes all the time, very rapidly. And for a lot of us – especially those of us who have been kind of consistently connected since let’s say the beginning of the digital age. – it’s even hard for us to remember when those transitions occurred: when certain icons morphed into other icons and when something became the standard symbol for search or when something became the standard symbol for save and that’s because that change happens gradually and happens frequently.
As long as you’re constantly connected you might experience the change and take it on board, but not necessarily note it. I think that the issue is that digital inclusion isn’t a switch that just gets turned on at some point and then it’s always on. It’s actually kind of more of a process and people can fall in and out of being included over the course of their lifetimes as well.
That this is something that is very important for understanding why the digital divide is unlikely to just kind of naturally close as a function of sort of demographic shifts. As young people get older they’ll just remain digitally connected and included, and we’re just not going to have a digital divide anymore.
The reason that’s unlikely to be the case is for the reasons that we were discussing earlier that the digital divide is actually a function of a lot of compound inequalities. For instance people may be highly digitally connected when they’re employed, but then when they become pensioners they’re on lower incomes. They may actually be only living off of their state pension for instance and due to that, they may decide “I actually don’t need internet connectivity for the next few months or the next year, because it’s a bit expensive and I’ll just roll that back”.
And then if you’re offline for a year or two years the digital world does move on in that time and when you come back online a lot of things can be really confusing.
This is something we can see already. For instance people who leave school at 16 (you can leave school at 16 in the U.K.) and then maybe are in and out of employment for a few years and then get a job that requires digital skills, let’s say in their twenties, will often be very behind in terms of digital literacy, because they just had that gap of a few years when they weren’t regularly connected or maybe they only had a smartphone and they kind of really didn’t do that much on a laptop and all kinds of applications have changed.
For instance our regular Microsoft Word users, sometimes you get an update on Word and you’re like “where did everything go? I don’t know where anything is anymore”. Just think of that on a much larger scale: if you’re a little disconnected for a few years due to unemployment or lack of income or something like that – life stage changes basically – that will continue to affect people basically as long as inequality continues to affect society.
That’s why the digital divide is unlikely to be really just purely a demographic or a time problem, mainly because people fall in and out of various levels of inclusion over the course of their lifetimes. That’s something that digital designers could certainly be aware of.
To return to your earlier question about what else designers can be aware of. We talked about the visual digital world but one other thing I wanted to mention was the importance of simplicity and how many assumptions go into deciding what is simple for a user.
I know that a big thing in app design and development is intuitive design: this idea that things should be as easy as possible for users. But a lot of times what digitally fluent people like you or I would assume is easy is actually very difficult for users who are digitally excluded or digital novices — they’re coming to devices for the first time.
Even something like having to create a user account can create a barrier for a user to use a particular platform or application or requiring somebody to create an email before they can use your platform or account adds an additional layer of complication to a user who may potentially desperately need access to the platform that you’ve built if it’s for something like say banking or welfare.
It’s very important to think about what simplicity is to a user and not to you as a designer.
“Critical tech thinking is about applying a critical lens to technology. This is increasingly important because of the fact that the digital world that we encounter today is not a fair one.”
L I could go on on discussions that sometimes I have with designers or fellow front end developers about “No, just put a tooltip that just shows up when you hover on it” and I’m like, “yeah I like that you’re saving space but if they don’t know they can hover that thing and that thing has some info there and they are not used to your interface, your product, then that doesn’t exist and you’re not helping them.” There are so many stories like that and I’m going to use this to move to Critical Tech Literacy.
Thinking critically about technology as a whole regardless of whether you’re a technologist like a programmer or a researcher. We all use technology nowadays, virtually it is everywhere, it is eating everything so it is important that we think about it critically. I’m going to read a quote from one of your slides that I screenshot. I’m going to read that and then we can dive into it a little bit.
“Critical Tech Literacy means cultivating skills to think critically about how we engage with the life critical technologies that have become essential to everyday life. It includes sometimes taking a critical stance towards technologies that perpetuate or create inequality and unfairness in society.”
So, first I was like “wow, Critical Tech! that is the same name! [laughs]” I went and researched it to understand what was out there regarding this theme and I mainly found literature on how critical it is for people to be literate in technology. In the sense of: you need it to work, you need it to be competitive, to be productive.
But that’s not really what you’re saying in this sentence, right? The floor is yours to expand on what you mean by Critical Tech Literacy in this case.
K Critical Tech Literacy is actually a term that I have alighted on that I’ve kind of started using really only very recently actually in that webinar that you attended. And yeah, I am using it differently from the literature that you described.
What I’m talking about is really kind of blending critical thinking with digital literacy.
Digital literacy really deals with competencies: how can you use technology and can you use it effectively for achieving your goals – those outcomes that are part of the third level of the divide. That’s digital literacy. It’s a nuanced concept but it’s very widely been adopted in policy circles.
Critical thinking is about applying a critical lens to technology. I would argue that this is increasingly important because of the fact that the digital world that we encounter today is not a fair one. Especially in recent years, there’s been a lot of excellent scholarship and reporting on the ways in which bias is built into technology, which should not be surprising because technology is a social product.
Bias is built into so many things that we use in our everyday lives, there’s no reason we should assume that digital technology is any different.
But still today, digital literacy is kind of approached – especially in school curricula – as a set of competencies: “How do you deal with digital technology? Are you able to perform certain tasks with technology?” And in its sort of most critical form: “can you keep yourself safe in the digital world?” These are the focuses basically of digital literacy, especially at the school level.
I think that we really need to move more in the direction of teaching kids to think critically about the technologies they use, how the technologies are built, what biases have been built into them and how to live balanced lives with technology.
Technology is pervasive and also largely built and marketed by private companies that have an interest in cultivating consumers who will continue to engage with those products in order to create value for the company. What that means in the long run is that sometimes that constant engagement isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the user.
How do we start thinking critically about the pervasiveness of technology in our everyday lives?
That’s really what I mean by Critical Tech Literacy. It’s about thinking critically about technology so that the next generation of tech users and designers: how do we ensure that they’re thinking about the assumptions that are built into technology, about their own positionality in relation to technology and how technology is a social product?
These are all concepts that are very widespread in academia, and we use all kinds of complicated language to talk about them but they’re concepts that can be translated into a digital literacy program for all ages. They’re not really that complicated in practice and so my argument for Critical Tech Literacy is that we should really take some of these very important conversations that are happening in the academy and make them a lot more widespread.
“If we want the technology marketplace to be dynamic and increasingly fair then we need to prepare students of technology today to be thinking like that.”
L And I’m a hundred percent behind that as you may imagine by having invited you to talk about it.
I feel that technologists are more and more aware, even though it may not be as mainstream as we would like it to be but there are things coming out in the mainstream: books like “Weapons Of Math Destruction” and even documentaries such as “The Social Dilemma” which explains in very simple terms how technology can be biased and can be used against you. And so we should be aware and be critical about what we’re building.
One thing that is funny, that is maybe just my perception, but when you put the word “critical”, people instantly are like: “Wow, you’re going to do destructive criticism.. And what? You don’t like technology?” And that’s not the thing. Actually, I love technology. I work in that field and what I just don’t want is to contribute to things that are then going to have negative side effects for groups that I may not even be aware that that is happening, right?
As technology becomes more and more pervasive, inevitably, it is important we wonder what is going on and not just take it in a passive manner.
My worry is that governments or schools or even your employers are gonna say: ” what’s the concrete outcome for that?” How to use the tool, how to navigate the web – that is understandable: you’re productive, you can get a better job.
But what is the advantage of being critical about technology? How would you get buy-in from a company or from a government and explain that we actually need Critical Tech Literacy on a more abstract level, on a more existential level and not on a practical level? How could you convince company’s management teams or a government to say: “we need more of this”?
K I think that there is really a ground swell right now of increasing awareness as you said of the issues related to how digital technologies can deepen certain social inequalities and there’s been a bit of a backlash against that.
The debates that we’ve seen in Europe and the U.S. around data management and privacy are kind of the tip of the iceberg and I doubt that these issues are going to go away anytime soon. The debates around things like Clearview AI, the scraping of personal content without consent, what terms and conditions actually mean for users, things like this. These are debates that are not going to go away. Companies won’t be able to dodge them, governments won’t be able to dodge them and the more awareness that people kind of generally have, the more they will stay on the agenda.
Future technologies, whether they’re built by companies or governments or NGOs or individuals or whatever, are going to have to design their platforms in fairer ways. That’s the direction of travel right now.
So it is actually very much in the interest of companies, government and schools to think about who the next designers of technology are likely to be. Undoubtedly kids in schools today are growing up kind of with ambitious plans for what technology should look like in the future, because a lot of them are heavy technology users, that’s the reality.
If we want the technology marketplace to be dynamic and increasingly fair – I would argue that that’s a good social goal in and of itself – then we need to prepare students of technology today to be thinking like that. We need to prepare them to be questioning their own assumptions, to be thinking about living in balance with technology so that they can build better products that enable users to have more control over their data.
And actually, I would also argue that while it is a kind of abstract esoteric concept, this idea of critical thinking about technology, there are some really concrete aspects to this.
So for instance, that webinar that you attended (hosted by the University of the Arts London) in the workshop component we asked participants about their level of confidence, for instance with different digital skills. And a lot of people, because this was a very digitally literate crowd, ranked really highly on things like “I can produce a word document” and ” I can search the internet”, “I can even discern quality information from questionable information online”, things like this.
But when it came to things like “I feel I have control over my digital footprints (the data trail that I lead)”, these kind of trickier areas where people are feeling kind of insecure, the confidence level went way down.
And this was just in a small group of participants in this workshop, but these are very digitally fluent people. When it came to things like, “I feel like I have control over my data”, or “I feel like I can switch off when I want to”, these were things that people ranked pretty low in terms of their confidence.
Those are things that going forward, people are going to want to have more control over and they’re going to want to do. That’s what Critical Tech Literacy is all about, and that is going to affect the entire economy around technology. And so it’s got to be of interest to companies, governments, and schools, unquestionably.
“Critical in and of itself does not mean you’re always criticizing technology. It really just means developing an awareness and a kind of constant practice of reflection about the role of technology in our personal lives and in society and how technology is shaped by social forces.”
L And I would even just add something which is: on a purely competitive aspect, technology is first functional, right? I can write a document, I can communicate with someone, I can find something that I’m looking for. That’s the functionality part of it. And we all love Google because it’s so great at delivering that functionality.
And as those needs are fulfilled by the services and the products that we use and we become acquainted, we start looking maybe for a sort of higher order need, which is: “I still want to retain some control over more abstract, more higher level things such as my privacy, how my data is shared.
So it’s like a sort of Maslow pyramid where you have your functional needs fulfilled and now you’re moving towards those more abstract needs that need to be fulfilled.
K Yeah, I think that’s a great addendum for sure and to echo something else you said as well, I am not anti-technology either.
I love technology and I use Google and I have Apple products and I’m also not against these companies just because they’re companies. I think you made the point earlier that it’s quite common that people hear the word critical and they think you mean criticism. And to be fair, sometimes I do, sometimes I do mean criticism.
But critical in and of itself does not mean you’re always criticizing technology. It really just means developing an awareness and a kind of constant practice of reflection about the role of technology in our personal lives and in society and how technology is shaped by social forces.
That is not value neutral, it has value. But it also isn’t inherently critical or anti-tech. And so I do think it is important to constantly stress that it may lead to criticism when things go badly or when biases lead to exclusions that harm people, then it is deserving of criticism, but that isn’t necessarily what critical means.
L What we’re going for is building the futures that we were promised in science fiction. The good science fiction, the utopian one, not the dystopian one, right?
K Yeah, exactly! It really is about building better futures for society!
My ethical orientation sees those futures as being more equal and fair and inclusive and just and so those are the values that I would argue need to be built into our social products like technology. It’s an optimistic view actually. It’s not a negative destructive view.
L And on that note, thank you so much for being here with us. It was a super interesting conversation. Tell everyone where they cen keep in touch with you. Where they can follow you, your work and your research.
K Great! Thank you so much again Lawrence for having me on the program, it’s been an absolute delight. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation myself.
If people would like to follow up and stay in touch and follow this work you can go to my website which is kiraallmann.com. You can follow cherrysoupproductions.com which is where we’re doing a lot of the collaborative work and collaborative development around Critical Tech Literacy resources. There we will be putting up some free open resources on how you could run workshops and sessions on Critical Tech Literacy over the coming months.
And I’m also on social media. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram, all at @kiraallmann, just my name so it’s very easy.
L Great, everyone go follow Kira. She publishes a lot of amazing research and great articles.
Thank you so much and we’ll keep in touch!
K Great! I look forward to it.