Counterstrategies for the digital spell

+Digital Literacy-Digital Divide

A recent discussion appeared on very prestigious newspaper and magazine pushes us to advance some considerations about how people envision critically the new communication platforms and media. More specifically, about the best approach to manage their increasing complexity given that, in front of a such innovative effervescence, we will always remain in a defective position.
My consideration is simple and evident  but still hard to be accepted by someone: digital communication flowing and building itself through innumerable and changeable  software on fix and mobile network became – and will remain – an important and inevitable condition  for our existence.  Being an ubiquitous and connective element/environment, and a product of a continuous and unstoppable development, we need to understand how to hear it, how to face its will (see Kevin Kelly’s provocation), but even and more better, how to personally engage it to increase human agency (see Howard Rheingold).

The uncertain status of digital divide
The cited discussion focuses on a ICT classical topic as the inequality of digital access and uses by people living in different regions – and, in an extended but more undefined meaning  – and/or have different social status. On the other side, the end of digital divide is a primary target for almost all worldwide nations.  The reason of unanimity is primarily a economical one given that ICT is characterizing very many products and (above all) processes of our age. In front of this wide orientation, we used to attend debates where all people inevitably complain the lack of incisive actions to counteract  it –  robust governmental investments should be the real solution. On the other side, in a prevailing logic of economical liberalism setting up a kind of universal service  needs the involvement of national States. With the end of national monopoly also in telecommunication sector, private companies invest only if  a ROI (Return Of Investment) can be obtained in a reasonable period of time that, after the significant  shrinkage of our economical horizons,  means no more of 3-5 years, a very challenging period  for a such impressive infrastructural expenses. The regions geographically uncomfortable and/or less densely populated – fundamentally,  ICT infrastructures depend on economics of scale – fall into the so called mechanism of “market failure” where the duty of investments remains a governmental issue – of course, if there is a real political will to amplify to entire community what becomes a common good.
In the articles we find no much around these notions if not an ironical invite to not spend much money solving  the issue. The point of view exposed on New York Times is that, once to be filled the infrastructural gaps, people would face another kind of division, that between users that wander wasting time in internet – mostly,  youth people, and specifically, those socially disadvantaged – and, on the contrary, young people having cognitive capacity to use internet wisely, even because helped by parents or supported by well-educated environments. (“Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era. Poor People Are Wasting Time on the Internet!”). In the same article danah boyd, known social researcher who works at Microsoft, reminds us that «access is not a panacea, not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring». However, we have to note how strange the suggestion to limit the diffusion of digital platforms resounds: there is neither reason neither authority that can establish the useful and useless (the good and the bad) for others, above all when we talk of communication tools – during the ages there was a long history of abjurations against all new forms of communication, first of all most popular ones. Actually, this haughty attitude is frequently condemned by the numerous online comments at the bottom of article.

The digital literacy
The other article on Technology Review, “There Is No Digital Divide. A concept that animates hundreds of millions in Federal spending needs to be retired”, responds critically analyzing the ideological and limited nature of the digital divide as concept.  The scholar Jessie Daniels is very sorry because digital divide doesn’t have, in its extended version, a common background. First of all, we should think how its original meaning has been defined. «The middle- and upper-classes, whites, and men were more likely to have access to technology, those sorts of questions about the characteristics of the “have-nots” just point us to old ways of thinking about class, about race, and about gender». Consequently, we judge our own uses not as representative of certain groups but standard to take as point of reference. Then,  every behavior – different, amplifying  o even more complex (combination of both…) – can be marked in terms of digital pathology. Moreover, reasoning in terms of digital divide – a framework elaborated when we accessed the net through a whistling device that “phoned” to internet servers in order to open the gate through which our bits would pass – could be also limited in a  world that has completely absorbed the digital shock, both providing ubiquitous connection and importing the digital powerful instrumentality and potentiality into the normality of things.
Once faced  the issue of being in or out – the challenge is to declare digital access as a constitutional right for every citizen – the question about how we are restructuring ourselves remains. And, regarding how facing this aspect, it would be better to nourish what is defined as “digital fluency” or “digital literacy”.
Then, we should prefer to remedy for internal lines, homeopathically, approaching the shift – as the spectrum of changes needs – with a truly multi-disciplinary way. The effect of digital shock has been useful and stimulant, a warning status that is part of a typical schema in the introduction of a wide-spreading technology. But passed the novelty phase, the attention for a medium and its generative matrix are generally lived by people with boredom needing technical knowledge. So, the diffusion of digital literacy is the true antidote to maintain a more unitary awareness with reference to the whole factors structuring the real powers of ideation and operation of new media.  The educators  Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes  (1996) were particularly forward-looking to highlight the multi-dimensionality with and on which this new form of literacy advances.  In their period the concern was balancing the enthusiasm for technicalities – we were living the novelty, the hype for the evident powerness of the medium, but the background of issue remains the same: «Information and computer literacy, in the conventional sense, are functionally valuable technical skills. But information literacy should in fact be conceived more broadly as a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact – as essential to the mental framework of the educated information-age citizen as the trivium of basic liberal arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) was to the educated person in medieval society» (1996).

Being already beyond
Coming back  to Technology Review‘s article, Daniels speaks about the skills of young people in navigating and searching information speedily, but also of their difficulty to decipher good information or  true sources. She makes the example of  “cloaked site”, web sites that diffuse false information hiding sources to mislead their latent intention. We can navigate into www.martinlutherking.org convinced to find information cured by passionate defenders of civil rights while, in the reality, the site is registered by a well-known suprematist group whose target is to justify the social domain of white people. Knowing the basic logic of internet infrastructure – every site name (domain) has to be publicly registered indicating  its own administrative manager – people can also, easily and immediately, catch this information ( www.easywhois.com). To explain how to operate with more agency  – the very example of cloaked site has been extracted from his last book “Net Smart” – Daniels cites the work of  Howard Rheingold, famous scholar and digital activist, pioneer of online technologies and inventor of lucky definitions as “virtual community” and “smart mobs”. Howard Rheingold belongs to that large group of Californian thinkers and activists to whom internet owes very much for the enthusiasm and propositional energy they poured in it – in this case more for cultural reasons than technical developments, and yet we learned how much technical and cultural aspects are co-essential for the existence and the dynamics of the internet as we used to known.
Answering questions upon the typical progressive optimism pervading ideas spreading from this peculiar USA region that hosts so much hi-tech industries, Rheingold affirms to be exactly aware about the many problems tormenting the entire globe – finally, he confessed to have passed much time discussing with his wife to decide whether or not having a daughter!  Simply, he works to regain more human agency, and networked participation showed to be a good ally for the purpose.
In short, we are in a phase in which, you like or dislike it, people have to deal with 1) problems of attention for the huge amount of events/news; 2) quality of information; 3) different and powerful ways to participate, know, work and socialize. We are already so intertwined between online and offline environments that we need to act as digital craftmen “by” the network, as well as to exercise through and think of our mental, social and political re-configuration.

The tough balance between opportunities and threats
Of course, in the world all things have to be relativized, and even digital issues can be, in many places, a very secondary element in restructuring so deeply people life. However, in many populated regions of world we reflect openly about our displacement and our new (post)human statute. We can easily stumble upon some common considerations so well summarized and described by Italian sociologist Ilvo Diamanti: «I too, long ago, changed my habits. Because I’m becoming, as others, a “multitasking man”. For mimesis with the tools – technological ones – I use. Or that they need me. As the smartphone that follows me faithfully. Multimedia Object – and Subject. And multifuctional one. That does, rather, “is” many things, all in one. Video and camera equipment, PC, MP3 player, GPS device, videogame console, flashlight, calendar, book reader, alarm clock, radio, TV… And many others applications, always new and different ones, that we can download and install with the same medium… The multitasking man marks a decisive turn in the relationship between  people and their surrounding world. (On the other side, Human Multitasking is developed by many scientific sectors for a long time). Without pretending to explain what I understand so little, it seems to me that from this trend emerges (and spreads) a flexible subject, always connected one. Of course, the subject is capable to combine different places, relations and activities. Without solution of continuity. Without stopping. Without fixing a specific point and practice  beyond some minutes. So that many things but no particular one can be done. With the risk, for this, to be less “connected” with the world around. For appearing and always feeling on fly. As if he/she was there by chance» (My translation)(2012).
The communality of feelings and thoughts involves and signals deep human and social implications whose significance, regardless our positive or negative sharing, has a definite anthropological value. Sure enough, it needn’t analysis based on simple schematism. Possibly, it could need counter-strategic actions.
The multitasking advent, for example, remarks this deep spacing finally attracting attention of who combines an old science as philosophy with media evolution and the so-called neural societies. Byung-Chul Han, philosopher with Korean origins – as professor in Germany teaches Media Philosophy – sees this symptomatology as expression of a new stage of the globalized life that highlights syndromes such as feeling of saturation, hyper-attention, information overload, sense of exhaustion, etc. In this context he sees an intense process of existential reconfiguration indicating both the return – that we could denote also positively – of capacity quieted by a certain stage of civilization, and the danger – the negative downfall – of a continuous and looming uncertainty of life: «the technique of time and attention defined as multitasking doesn’t constitute a civilizing progress. The multitasking is not a skill that belongs only to a man living in the late-modern information society. Rather, it is a regress. In fact, the multitasking is already largely present in nature among animals. It is an indispensable techniques of attention to survive in the wild habitat». Nutrition activities have to balance themselves with the attention to be not devoured, and the same attention must be reserved for the protection of own offspring and sexual partners. This context continually imposes «to reprocess the background …  the concern of good life, that involves also a good cohabitation, increasingly shifts toward the sole concern of surviving» (My translation) (2010).
Bibliography

Diamanti, I., “Avanza l’Uomo Multitask“, Repubblica.it, 6/4/2012

Han, Byung-Chul, 2010, Mudigkeitsgesellschaft, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin

Kelly, K., 2010, What Technology Wants, Viking Adult, New York

Shapiro, J. J., Hughes, S. K., 1996, Information Literacy as a Liberal Art

Rheingold, H., 2012, Net smart. How to Thrive Online, The MIT Press, Boston

There Is No Digital Divide“, Technology Review, 31/5/2012

Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era“, New York Times, 29/5/2012