#DataLiteracy is the vehicle to a technological utopia – so why aren’t we talking about it?

| June 3, 2019

It goes without saying that technology has become an entrenched feature of contemporary lifestyle. Modern technology now defines the way individuals conduct their daily routines and interact with one another. We instinctively call on devices to deal with our problems. Our queries are instinctively fulfilled by Google. Our social interactions are all conveniently organized. Our appetites are satisfied with the touch of a button. Technological is our instinctive solution to most problems, writes Joe Oakes.
What strikes me is that no one seems to know if they like it or not. I hear so many speculate the impending doom of an Orwellian dystopia following mass technological change – an opinion which they tweet off their smartphone whilst riding in an Uber. It’s almost as though we have some higher conscience that wants us to fight the technological revolution – but after a long day of work and a testing week, we’d rather scroll twitter and passively watch semi-funny videos than engage this philosophy.
Many are worried that in doing so, we are consigning ourselves to monotony. Commercialized networking platforms in particular demonstrate less concern for altruism or individual prosperity as much as they do with screen time. Various psychological tactics are successfully employed to achieve to cement our engagement.
This view of the world is interesting and worth consideration. But it seems desolate and narrow. It misses some of the great benefits that technology provides for us. For us middle-class millennials of the UK, technology offers the time to pursue your interests, running the errands that you just don’t have time to.

With regard to political discussion and debate, social media is the most influential technological development. Facebook and Twitter now serve as people’s number one news source, and with an increasing influence. The young are particularly reliant on these sources for information – 82% of 16-24s consider the internet as their go-to. The impact on political participation is debated but apparent. There is no denying the engaging capacities that social media offer.

Most scholars recognize that social media opens people up to opinions that they may not have otherwise seen – particularly psychologists who point to the necessity of technology in empowered societies. By opening up the scope of opinion, we reduce the risk of a one-dimensional thought process. One need only to look to China, where the CCP’s forceful management of social media is one of the biggest threats to any shred of democratic libertarian values.

Any publishing must be approved by government officials, Western platforms are mostly banned, and the government are even coming after internet cafes. A free, open media is instrumental in preventing such a fate in the West.

Disagreement and diversity is therefore hugely valuable for maintaining liberal democracy. While many perceive social media as a vehicle for echo chambers and restricted opinion, there is a handful of evidence which suggests that social networking sites expose users to alternative viewpoints. Whether or not your timeline is decorated in such a way will depend on how you understand these issues and how you chose to approach it.

The power of social media to innovatively join people across divides is inspiring – and a trend which is in worryingly short supply. But it would be wrong to forget what it does to bring together those who already share interests. Groups and forums online successfully bring unite people whose passions overlap, allowing users to discuss and advance their hobbies. On a more personal level, individuals who feel marginalized or isolated in their particular community can experience the value of reaching out to others who are in the same boat. Social media have a wonderful ability to give a voice to those who feel voiceless.

I am a strong believer in the empowering capabilities of social media, but I am not blind to their problems. Given its status as a provider of information for the masses, their difficulties are associated with the method by which this information is delivered, and its quality. It is now much harder to identify what constitutes our timeline and what we can really trust.

In a time of print press, identifying sources and their angles was much easier. One could pick up a copy of any newspaper, and immediately understand where it was coming from, what was motivating it to publish what it was. Now, the line is blurred. The myriad of opinions and sources online are offered by individuals or organizations which we hardly know, whose thoughts are now much more far-reaching. Understanding the reasons behind people’s comments or tweets is much harder, and it becomes harder for us to contextualize their standpoint. Without this, evaluating the information they offer becomes nearly impossible.

Acknowledging how your sources got on to your timeline in the first place is also essential. As most social media platforms are commercialized, they prioritize relevance over significance. If these platforms can keep engagement on the up, then their worth as a platform increases, followed by their advertising revenue. They just ask that instead of paying, you offer up all available information about yourself. As a result, the first posts you see are the ones that reflect your data most intimately, and therefore pique your interest and keep you wanting more.

More often than not, the posts you see most of will tend to be from the people you already agree with. The result of this is an increasing focus on popularity rather than quality. Deciphering the legitimacy of a claim or an individual making one is particularly hard, given that its so easy to manufacture or sensationalize statements. Popularity as a key determinant of quality has given rise to the phenomenon of fake news and inflammatory reporting. We come to analyse the posts we read based on the number of retweets they receive, or the following of the ‘publisher’. Bullshit rides this wave right to the front pages.

When things move so quickly, we don’t have the time to work out what’s right and what’s wrong. We can’t always run a line of enquiry into the truth of every claim. This all seems so trivial. How do we know who to trust if not the most popular source? Where should I get my information from?

Many people have suggested regulation of these platforms, and the motion has made its way to the floor of the commons on a number of occasions. But for all the popularity of this movement, it seems to ignore the quality of social media which I’ve outlined. If we regulate the media itself, we risk losing so much of the benefits that we are desperately in need of – not to mention the threats to freedom of expression.

We must now turn our attention to digital literacy as a solution. Learning how to utilize, evaluate, publish, share and write are, like elementary literacy, not naturally developed. They need to be taught. The significance of encouraging people to learn this cannot be understated. If we can increase society’s understanding and manage their misuse of these platforms, the need for regulation as good as disappears, and we can focus on maximizing the empowering potential of these sites.

A report published by Demos suggests that young people are most in need of this education. The report identifies that they are by far the most confident users, but also the most easily misled. They do not fact check their information, they are unable to find the right information, and are unable to recognize bias. As the biggest users of social media, and the future of politics, it is essential that these individuals are geared up to manage its nuances. As the nature and the demands on these media change and develop for years to come, the young must not allow themselves to be misled, nor to inadvertently mislead others.

The government claims to be switched on to the problem. The most recent significant investment was in 2015, when they launched an £85 million programme in digital skills training. Their policy paper makes important reference to the inclusive capabilities of digital literacy which they intend to implement through the library system and the NHS.

But the Demos report suggests that a lack of teaching is one of the biggest reasons behind the data literacy problem in the UK. Around one third of students actually receive tuition, and 55% of teachers believe that their students are not sufficiently equipped to manage the dangers.

Technology has permeated into all elements of our lifestyle and our politics, and it will continue to do so. The banality of technological processes and social media as a form of political engagement means that its impacts have become easy to overlook. Many people, particularly the young, assume that navigation of these technologies is inherent and straightforward – but that is simply not the case. The impact of misuse is vast and detrimental.

We can take one of two paths. Individuals and governments can switch on to the impacts of increased data literacy, and we can accept all of the fruitful benefits that technology has to offer. Alternatively, we can complacently ignore these issues, and open the door to inflammatory news production and empty rhetorical debate. As threats to liberty and equality come in thick and fast, it is our prerogative as a society to lay the fundamental groundwork to be able to fight them off.

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Category: A Frontpage, Digital economy, Digital Single Market, Digital Society, EU, Net neutrality

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