Presented at the Digital Leaders 2022 National Digital Conference, Understanding the Evidence Panel
Thank you very much for having me here. Today I’m mostly going to speak from my experience writing the 2022 UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review for the Digital Poverty Alliance, which is launching next week.
For the review, I consulted more than 200 sources of evidence on the five determinants of digital poverty from academia, the third sector, industry, and Government. The five determinants, as outlined by the Digital Poverty Alliance are Devices and Connectivity, Access, Capabilities, Motivation, and Support and Participation. As you can probably imagine, these headings encompass quite a wide range of issues and supporting data and the reason comes down to this: digital poverty is at least as much a social issue as it is a technological issue. So, to tackle it, we need to know more about people – their day to day lives, their hardships, the inequalities they face – and we need to build technologies that take this diversity of experiences and forms of exclusion into account.
By way of an opening statement, I’m going to highlight three things about where we need to be looking for the evidence to end digital poverty, based on the evidence review that’s coming out on Monday in full. These are top-level observations, and if you want to dig into them, obviously check out the report on Monday, and I’ll be making my entire list of source material – including things that aren’t cited in the report – available then, too.
First, we need to look beyond the longstanding absolute divide between digital haves and have-nots – the classic online/offline distinction – to focus instead on relative differences and divides. On the face of it, the UK is a highly connected country: Ofcom reports that 94% of households have internet access. But these aggregate statistics can obscure the ways that the digital divide is deepening for some people – especially people who are already disadvantaged. There are regional divides, with rural areas especially in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland the least able to access decent broadband. And divides based on income, with households in the lowest socio-economic grades being more than 15 points more likely to use only a smartphone to get online compared to the highest socio-economic grades. And there are divides based on education, with those lacking formal qualifications being 2.8 times more likely to say the internet is “not for them,” according to research Simeon, who is here on the panel with us, conducted for Good Things Foundation. There are divides based on disability, with disabled adults 18 points less likely to be recent internet users according to ONS. Factors like the reliability of your connection, the speed of your connection, and the privacy of the spaces you have at your disposal to connect also all affect your experience of the digital world.
Second, digital inequality – and therefore digital poverty – is becoming a very complex issue in the digital world today because of what scholars call ‘datafication,’ meaning the collection of information about people and the processing of that data, which now underpins most digital services.
It’s not just about whether someone has an internet connection or an internet-enabled device anymore. It’s also about whether enough or too little data about them is being collected and whether data-driven decisions are putting them at a greater disadvantage, for instance in risk-scoring for housing or insurance. So we need to look at the evidence around issues like algorithmic bias, digital tracking and surveillance, and the commercial sale of data to understand how people are benefitting or suffering from digitisation. And all these issues are also contributing to what people think about the digital world – their motivation. People care more and more about privacy, and this affects their trust in digital technologies. Lloyds Bank reports that over half of people offline say they’re worried about their privacy. And the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has found that people with low digital familiarity are the most likely to be worried about data security and risks. At the same time, people generally don’t understand how their data is collected and used, or how to identify risks to their data or their access to information. Again, CDEI reports that infrequent digital users mostly say they know little or nothing about how data about them is used or collected, but in the general population less than half of people say they know these things. These issues are all factors contributing to digital poverty.
Third, and this is related to the second point, we need to explore and address the double-edged sword of inclusion. What do I mean by that? Well, digital poverty doesn’t end when people finally get online or have access to a reasonable device. It’s not a switch that gets flipped from “off” to “on,” and now people will be able to experience the positive outcomes of digitisation. People may actually be exposed to more harms due to their digital disadvantage, so we need to include evidence about what those harms are, who is most likely to be affected, and how to mitigate them. This means building digital technologies and systems that are safe, accessible, and privacy-enhancing.
In summary, the evidence we need to take into account in order to tackle digital poverty goes beyond what we’ve traditionally relied on – statistics on digital connections and skills – and now needs to encompass all the complexities of a data-driven world and how these are embedded in people’s social contexts.
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.
These are remarks I gave at the meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills on 24 March 2021.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak on this panel today.
I’m going to make a few remarks about the research that I’ve been doing on digital skills with colleagues at the University of Oxford—one of whom is here in the meeting, Dr Grant Blank – and I’m going to focus on some findings that are relevant to this discussion about education – and school children, in particular.
For the last couple years, I have led a research project looking at how public libraries in Oxfordshire deal with requests for digital help. Libraries get a lot of these kinds of requests – people coming in asking for help with everything from printing to signing up for Universal Credit.
For this project, we did surveys, we did interviews, and we did participant observation, meaning that I spent time in libraries taking notes on what I did and saw. And I have actually served as a volunteer digital helper in the Oxfordshire County Library for several years.
There are a few findings from this research that point to important issues related to digital skills education among school children.
First, we should be careful not to overlook children when it comes to digital skills and inclusion because it’s easy to assume that kids these days are what we call “digital natives,” meaning they are growing up exposed to technology and acquiring fluency naturally.
I’ll illustrate what I mean by quoting a librarian from one of our interviews. She said (slightly abridged):
“I think it’s surprising […] you have to explode all the myths and the narratives. It’s all a bit like, well, older people will need some help from their library, but younger people are digital natives. So, they’ll be fine. But that is exploded in [the library] every day. We have young people who come in and say, oh my phone isn’t working, and I haven’t got a printer, and I haven’t got a computer, and how do I do this? And you know, they haven’t had the education or the hardware, so how are they digital natives? So there’s lots of myths […] every day is a kind of a reminder of all of the wide range of people and their experiences.”
In another interview, a different library staff member said:
“What surprised me most is children not knowing how to use a mouse. They’ve never seen a mouse and keyboard. We have had a lot of that […]”
I don’t have much time, so I’m being a bit anecdotal here, but these observations are all the more important in the context of the digital divide in educational opportunities we’ve seen during COVID.
The point is that we need to understand that digital inclusion isn’t just a switch that we can flip from unconnected to connected, for instance, or device-less to device-owning.
It doesn’t work like that in real life. And that’s because digital exclusion is very context-specific, and it’s not just about the digital – about technology.
It’s also not a question of just a generational divide.
So digital skills education needs to take seriously the digital skills of children in education.
I’ll give you one more example based on the libraries research and what I’ve also heard from teachers I’ve interviewed in rural schools.
Children often demonstrate device or platform fluency but lack broader, transferrable digital skills.
Some kids, for instance, only know how to use Google products – this is what I mean by “platform” or “proprietary” fluency.
Now, to some extent, this has always been the case. You grow up with a Mac computer, so you know Macs better than PCs.
But it’s finally time for us to interrogate what that means for kids growing up today – and the influence that this kind of partial fluency might have on their trajectories and abilities in the future.
In closing the digital divide in skills, we need to be conscious of how we are not just educating digitally skilled contributors to the knowledge economy, but also cultivating consumers of particular products.
And depending on your outlook, that might be a problem for political or economic reasons, but it’s also – and I want to stress this – a problem for digital literacy.
All the initiatives that have emerged during COVID to make internet more affordable, lift data caps, and refurbish and deliver devices have been great. But they’re stop-gap measures. They’re based on the logic of: we’ll take what we can get.
But post-COVID, one of the areas of focus for digital skills education needs to be on the digital divides that exist among so-called digital natives – the kids who have access and fluency in just a single device or single platform.
These sorts of divides can often be invisible because without looking at individual contexts, kids seem really digitally connected.
Digital skills education therefore can’t just be an afterthought it school curricula.
It needs to encompass multiple device and platform fluency as well as critical thinking and decision-making skills around issues like consent.
The last thing I want to say – and this is the drum I always beat loudly – libraries need to be financially supported as the institutions of digital inclusion that they are. Whether they’re prepared or not, whether they’re designated Online Centres or not, libraries are having to perform this role, and we can really strengthen their ability to do so with funding and other human resources.
The digital revolution has arguably made more information – otherwise locked away in the exclusionary spaces of libraries, archives, personal collections, and memory – more accessible to more people, who can now both contribute to and draw from remarkable digitized repositories of free content, like Wikipedia. The open data, software, and access movements have been influential in this ‘democratization’ of knowledge online. The sheer quantity (scale) of digital content and the participatory architecture of digital spaces can lend themselves to an underlying assumption that digital is more equitable, representative, and accessible than the analog processes that mediated knowledge in the past. But as we rely ever more heavily on online knowledge repositories today, it is especially crucial to ask who and what is included in these new, virtual collections. And what is missing? Today, nearly half the world remains offline, so we know that access to and creation of digital content is not equal. This talk addresses digital inequality in terms of ‘knowledge justice’ – the equal participation, representation, and visibility of different forms of knowledge online. It starts at the level of marginalized communities and asks: when is ‘open’ exclusionary? And when does ‘closed’ offer opportunities for self-determination and empowerment?
Our Stories, Our Knowledges (2018) A resource series from Whose Knowledge? that presents some important insights into the structures of power marginalized communities are dismantling and the struggles they face in centering their knowledges online. It is co-authored by members of Native American communities of the Kumeyaay and Shoshone, Dalit feminist communities from India and the diaspora, LGBTIQA communities from Bosnia Herzegovina, the Whose Knowledge? team and its allies.
Engagement in the Knowledge Economy: Regional Patterns of Content Creation with a Focus on Sub-Saharan Africa (2017) Increasing digital connectivity has sparked many hopes for the democratization of information and knowledge pro- duction in sub-Saharan Africa. To investigate the patterns of knowledge creation in the region compared to other world regions, we examine three key metrics: spatial distributions of academic articles (traditional knowledge pro- duction), collaborative software development, and Internet domain registrations (digitally mediated knowledge production). We and that, contrary to the expectation that digital content is more evenly geographically distributed than academic articles, the global and regional patterns of collaborative coding and domain registrations are more uneven than those of academic articles. Despite hopes for democratization afforded by the information revolution, sub-Saharan Africa produces a smaller share of digital content than academic articles. Our results suggest the factors often framed as catalysts in the transformation into a knowledge economy do not relate to the three metrics uni- formly. While connectivity is an important enabler of digital content creation, it seems to be only a necessary, not a sufacient, condition; wealth, innovation capacity, and public spending on education are also important factors.
Gender differences and bias in open source: pull request acceptance of women versus men (2017) Biases against women in the workplace have been documented in a variety of studies. This paper presents a large scale study on gender bias, where we compare acceptance rates of contributions from men versus women in an open source software community. Surprisingly, our results show that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s. However, for contributors who are outsiders to a project and their gender is identifiable, men’s acceptance rates are higher. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.
(Adapted from my presentation at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference)
On October 16 this year, the popular photo hosting service Twitpic announced it would be shutting down. The announcement came after weeks of negotiation, as the company attempted to find a buyer that might save it from obsolescence.
When Twitpic launched in 2008, it quickly became one of the most popular and successful services for sharing photos on Twitter, particularly among citizen journalists documenting live events. But with the announcement of its impending closure, all of those images were in jeopardy.
On the website, Twitpic advised users to download their own photo archives and gave step-by-step directions to aid users in saving and storing their photos before it was too late. Fewer than ten days later, no one—not even the photographers themselves—would have access to the Twitpic records anymore.
The announcement went relatively unnoticed, not least because of previous false alarms. In the end, Twitpic gave us little time to consider what might happen to those photos, where they would go, who owned them, and what we could do about it. Documentary material from nearly every major news event over the past five years was sitting in the digital Twitpic repository. Although most of it had wound up in the public sphere—posted, shared, retweeted—at one point or another, now its survival depended not on the countless digital consumers who had seen and shared the images but on the original producers.
In order to save the public record, it had to be made private again. It had to be actively downloaded from the shared Twitpic servers onto personal computers and storage devices—perhaps to be shared again somewhere new, perhaps to join a burgeoning personal archive reaching unmanageable proportions. We create more now than we can organize and retrieve.
The Twitpic announcement has tangible consequences for how we remember the past on social media because jumbled up with countless cat photos and college selfies are photos from tsunamis, earthquakes, Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout.
The Arab Spring, as it is popularly known, reinforced our collective enchantment with social media as events across the Middle East and North Africa were broadcast on TV and computer screens worldwide. The revolutions were unprecedentedly technologically mediated. They were organized, documented, and transmitted through digital social media, which supported some early and misguided perceptions that social media was the revolution, rather than the longstanding historical cries for political and economic reform.
Still, social media was important, and this is a discussion of how a digital narrative of the Arab Spring is underpinned by the preponderance of digital texts that we—academics, journalists, activists, and others—use to explain it.
In the Twitpic shutdown, some activists, journalists and other Twitter users saw the potential for great losses. They tweeted, texted and posted pleas for Twitpic users to preserve their photos, knowing that at least part of the revolutionary story was stored on Twitpic servers.
The example of Twitpic should make us pause to think—in the midst of unprecedented, vibrant social media production—about what gets lost and forgotten and how the commercial architecture of major internet platforms is implicated in these processes of preservation and annihilation.
Some questions I have begun to ask myself about the digital ‘archive’ of the Arab Spring include:
(1) When a digital platform can no longer host digital ‘artifacts’ for users, where does that archive relocate? What are the political, social, and technological mechanisms by which those public archives are made obsolete, invisible, or inaccessible?
(2) When collections are saved privately, they leave the public domain, if/how/should they be made accessible again? How are the unfolding counter-revolutionary politics changing ethical expectations about how information can and should be shared?
We’re getting to this point now, nearly four years later, when we’re beginning to look retrospectively at the Arab Spring as a historical moment. We’re starting to ask whether these revolutionary moments are over, or whether what we are dealing with is history at all.
It seemed to me that we should interrogate the sources we turn to in order to answer these questions. We should consider the process of history-making and the role that digital artifacts will come to play in this process for all of us — academics, journalists, etc.
Idea for this talk came from my own experiences trying to save, record, archive material for my DPhil, as well as interviews from my field work in Egypt with people who are trying to actively archive their experiences during the revolution. Many people rely on social media repositories of digital artifacts, like photos and videos.
While the unique characteristics of the political and technological moment of revolution present unprecedented opportunities to retain, save, and remember multi-media events, they also encompass a shocking potential for loss, deletion and forgetting. It is so easy to be completely immersed in what is there—photos, eyewitness videos, live tweets, blog posts—that we have to constantly remind ourselves to consider what’s not there.
There is also a tendency to believe that digital technology makes memory easier – and in many ways it does! We could be forgiven for believing that digital artifacts are more permanent, less corruptible, and even perfectly suited for aggregation and categorization. In fact, many platforms help us do this more efficiently through search functions and algorithmic sorting.
But, as I will argue, these assumptions are the product of the same kind of tech-utopianism that called the Egyptian revolution a “Facebook” or “Twitter” revolution. They are reductive. They do not take into account the techno-social relationships that create these kinds of archives — leaving the story to technology first and foremost.
In this discussion, I’m going to reference Egypt primarily, as that’s where I do most of my field work, but this discussion is open to other contexts and ramifications. In my thesis, I examine a number of specific archival ‘projects’ that emerged out of the Egyptian revolutionary moment. They all took particular interest in trying to aggregate the digital artifacts of the revolution, recognizing that this was a uniquely digitally mediated event and that its history would be recorded across both physical and virtual domains. I will not go into these cases in any great detail here, but instead, I am going to draw out several themes that emerged from looking at these archival initiatives and their successes and failure. These issues, I think, are relevant to broader theoretical discussions about digital archives, and they are informed by critical archival studies of analogue archives.
Specifically, I will focus on four themes that have emerged for me from my study of digital archive of the Egyptian revolution: curation, deletion, temporality, and re/over-writing.
When I talk about curation of the digital record, I am talking about issues of authority: who gets to contribute to the archive and what that means about its longevity, its resilience, its biases, and its assumptions.
The curatorial process in the digital archives of revolution is often hard to pinpoint. It’s not always clear who or what is doing the curating in a digital space. But curatorial authority is obscured in ways that differ from the obscurity of authority in analogue archives. In archival projects like the ones I am looking at, someone or a group of individuals has taken on the role of collecting and sorting digital artifacts. But those artifacts might have been produced and indeed pre-sorted, pre-categorized, pre-filtered by another set of creators-slash-curators, either the owners/authors of the content themselves or the technological processes acting on that content on certain platforms.
If you search ‘#EgyptianRevolution’ on Twitter, for instance, to find photos, posts, and videos, aren’t you also finding a combination of what has been filtered for you by users (who have labeled their content already) and by the search function of the platform, which sets its own criteria for relevance and importance?
In my own work on digital archiving of the revolution, it is also apparent that many self-identified curators are themselves political activists. They are also digitally fluent, meaning they have high levels of digital literacy, and indeed, often literacy in both English and Arabic. They see their archival projects as acts of witnessing, much like the photography and filming of Tahrir Square during revolution.
But there are other kinds of ‘curators’ in this space, too. NGOs, libraries, and universities have launched archival projects in Egypt, and, of course, the government has also expressed interest in curating digital artifacts. All of these actors understand — quite explicitly — that curating digital artifacts is also about writing a particular narrative.
I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve grappled with how to classify these archival initiatives or projects so as to distinguish between their different structures and objectives. We might say, for instance, there are ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ archives. Organizations and the government classify their collection endeavors as archival projects — meaning, they set out to preserve an historical record of the revolution. But the ‘unofficial’ domain of archiving encompasses pretty much everything and anything else. Arguably, we have all become archivists in our production of digital content for social media.
This abundance of content, the diversity of potential ‘archives’ available for aggregation and curation, preserves the Egyptian revolution from myriad perspectives. This is essentially what was lauded about the mediation of the revolution in the early days of 2011: the eye-witness accounts that challenged ‘official’ narratives. We could see the revolution unfold from the ground. But this diversity of perspective does not negate the need to confront the issue of archive neutrality, as critical archival studies would remind us. All archives — including the burgeoning, distributed social media archive of content from the Egyptian revolution — are created in the dialectic between inclusion and exclusion.
One major source of exclusion when we’re talking about digital archives is the digital divide between those with regular, stable internet access and those without. In Egypt, this divide is highly consequential. In 2011, internet penetration in Egypt was just around 25%. To overcome this exclusion, some activists have actively tried to bridge the online/offline divide by digitizing non-digital artifacts, records, and recollections. I talk more about this in my thesis, but it was important for these citizen-archivists to confront and subvert this exclusionary inequality of access in curating digital archives. It was a sort of quiet acknowledgment that born-digital archives would wind up being inherently partial and — arguably — elite.
Another source of exclusion was what we might call “partitioning” of content across multiple platforms and formats. I refer to the “distributed archive” in my doctoral research because of the way digital artifacts are scattered across different proprietary, personal, and public platforms. A key issue related to curatorial authority here is the question of ownership. Who actually owns the hardware (software, servers, etc.) that artifacts are stored on? When a user relies on a proprietary platform, like Twitpic, to store and help to sort some of their personal digital archive, what happens when the company goes bust? The preponderance of digital artifacts that we all produce everyday as regular digital users means that we increasingly rely on intermediaries to store, sort, and publish our content — those intermediaries introduce new kinds of precarity into our digital repositories.
By ‘deletion,’ I am referring to the active and passive removal of content from a particular archival space. One source of deletion is government censorship. Already, the Egyptian government has blocked and removed certain websites, and as we saw during the 18 days of protest in 2011, the government can even shut the internet down entirely. In 2013, Egypt briefly blocked YouTube over the publication of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, and there is currently a lawsuit pending in a Cairo court on banning Twitter and Facebook in Egypt unless the companies obtain a special license to operate.
In addition, commercial platforms like Facebook and Twitter practice their own forms of intentional and unintentional censorship. The “reporting” feature that allows users to flag inappropriate content often results in the removal of politicized content, resulting in at least temporary censorship of some digital records that certain activists might argue constitute an important archive of political events. There are many examples of this kind of erasure occurring on Syrian revolutionary pages, where graphic images have fallen foul of platform community standards.
By contrast, there are also non-ideological and non-politicized erasure and removal of content due to expiry, where online repositories of digital artifacts simply cease to exist. Because even personal websites and blogs need to be maintained to stay active (and sometimes this involves paying hosting fees or maintaining servers), repositories can disappear.
And of course, there is also self-censorship and active deletion by the creators of digital content. Dramatic changes in the political climate in Egypt and elsewhere have prompted many activists and citizen-journalists to remove content once posted online or to refrain from posting new content.
Another theme that has emerged from looking at archival initiatives seeking to preserve the digital artifacts of revolution is the issue of temporality — the interaction of both offline (political/social/human) time and platform time.
Most social media platforms are built on the logic of the “feed,” in which the most recent posts appear first. Older posts are pushed back, and eventually out of sight. With changes to the application programming interfaces (APIs) used to interact with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it is becoming more difficult to search and query the past. Older posts (though permanent, in a sense) are made inaccessible without technical knowledge or money to access them through an API. Moreover, older content is replaced quickly with new content; the speed at which this replacement occurs results in certain kinds of erasure — annihilation by sheer quantity.
To search such large stores of data, distributed across the web, we rely on search engines as intermediaries, whose algorithmic processes of sorting also influence what we are likely to turn up.
And the viral effect of certain media content, which receives a large, rapid response, has a tendency to eclipse other content and events. What is the effect of vitality on our definition of (or ascribing of meaning to) certain events?
If everything can potentially be documented and shared, how much do we look for what isn’t?
As we enter the long tail of revolution now, we are seeing more and more counter-revolutionary narratives emerging and competing with revolutionary ones. Misinformation campaigns actively seek to re-write or over-write history, and the curatorial diversity discussed above means that many competing “authorities” can make claims to represent the true or complete record of the revolution — a highly politically contested event.
Changes in the political landscape can seriously affect the trajectory of digital “archives” — and which stakeholders are interested in its preservation. In Egypt, as elsewhere following the Arab Spring, there is widespread suspicion among revolutionary participants of “official” archives and narratives, meaning that energy and interest has turned strongly toward unofficial, personal, and dispersed archival practices. And when archiving is such a political endeavor in the present, the loss of political will or a shift in political energies can halt the archiving process, leading to abandoned projects and defunct platforms.
As new platforms emerge and old platforms die, how can digital archives of the future preserve not only the artifacts (in the form of text or videos or images) but also the context in which they appeared? Does it matter that a video first appeared on Facebook? Well, maybe.
Preserving digital artifacts by format alone would risk flattening this crucial context — the cultures, norms, and logics that influenced its creation, interpretation, or dissemination. These are the kinds of considerations that digital archives of such a highly politicized moment bring to light very starkly.
I’d like to close by pointing out that these potential opportunities for erasure, deletion, or — at its more esoteric — forgetting through the digital archive — are also all potentially very positive and powerful opportunities for change and resistance.
As scholars, we will of course turn to digital artifacts of the Egyptian revolution in making sense of what happened, but in doing so, we run the risk of privileging technologically mediated ‘texts’ and ‘artifacts’ in our analyses. It is obvious why we might rely too heavily on the digital record: it is relatively easy to aggregate, locate, and search. Digital artifacts lend themselves easily to storage and organization.
But we also need to be aware that the overwhelming amount of digital content will populate our archives of the Arab Spring might eclipse other artifacts — offline artifacts. The sheer quantity of public digital content engenders an erasure, a deletion, of that which is not there — that which is few, private, off the network.
Social media content may be abundant, but it is not representative of the full spectrum of participants in or experiences of revolution. The same inequalities that create the digital divide in access between ICT users and non-users act upon the digital texts that tell the story of revolution. Even online, where a seemingly limitless multiplicity of voices can contribute, we must always consider which voices are not heard, which artifacts have been excluded and why.
In Egypt, new state restrictions on expression and protest have not only constrained activity on the streets, they have stifled certain digital practices as well. Digital content has tremendous representational power; it can (and does) define an entire moment. Videos, images, and blog posts streaming out of Tahrir Square helped the entire world make sense of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. The digital age has rendered archiving a practice we must engage with in the present. For the reasons discussed above—the fracturing of curation, the explicit and implicit practices of deletion, the ephemeral nature of online content, and the processes of re- and over-writing—archiving has to be part of the unfolding revolutionary moment. We must consider how to incorporate digital artifacts into our practices of remembering, or like the fallible, perishable, vulnerable documents of the past, this archive may too be lost to new forces of forgetting.