Talking Digital Literacy with Howard Rheingold

Yesterday I attended an event with Howard Rheingold as the keynote speaker. Rheingold is best known for his work at The Well (one of the first virtual communities) and his 2002 book Smartmobs, a forecast of the always-on era. Rheingold talked about Digital Literacy at the University of Utrecht, who organized this event together with the main Dutch platform for media literacy called MediaWijzer.

Of course his theories from his latest book, Net Smart, feeded most of the talk and discussion. Rheingold on his book: “Instead of confining my exploration to whether or not Google is making us stupid, Facebook is commoditizing our privacy, or Twitter is chopping our attention into microslices (all good questions), I’ve been asking myself and others how to use social media intelligently, humanely and above all mindfully. This book is about what I’ve learned.”

His main objective is to create concepts to ‘mindfully’ use (new) media technologies. Users have to be able to read and write media, the basics for this is a set of literacies that I will briefly discuss in this post.

5 literacies

Attention: Being aware of your attention curve and how you distribute this to different media and or screens. In this context Rheingold talks about infotention as a concept to make conscious decisions on how you divide your attention to different information sources. We can train this, according to Rheingold.

Crap detection: This has to do with critical consumption. Knowing how to evaluate a source and making a educated guess about its origins and if it’s trustworthy. He gives the example of, that’s on the first page with results from Google if you search for MLK. This website is actually hosted by the same people that run, a white nationalist and supremacist neo-Nazi Internet forum that was the Internet’s first major hate site

Participation: This is all about knowing how to leverage collective intelligence. He suggests curation by peers as a way to filter the information stream as one example. But also emphasizes that it’s not only about consuming or sharing content, but also about creating content.

Social know know: Closely related to participation are virtual communities and crowdsourcing as other ways to leverage collective intelligence.

Networks: The ability to grasp how networks work as the final literacy. Identifying small worlds within the netwerk, the concept of networked identity through social media, the long tail, reputation management and networked individuality; all characteristics of modern networks that users need to understand and also how these structures have influence over individuals and groups.

What about writing media?
To me the set of literacies are all part of the notion to understand how to ‘read’ digital technologies. But although he hinted at the topic a few times, Rheingold didn’t say much on ‘writing’ digital technologies, coding in other words. Douglas Rushkoff describes the importance of this skill very well:

When we got language, we didn’t just learn how to listen, but how to speak. When we got text, we didn’t just learn how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we’re learning how to use them — but not how to program them.

In the Q&A session I asked Rheingold about this skill and how he feels about this and what role can schools play to educate kids with coding skills. He sort of agreed saying that we do not all have to learn how to code, because we can create without code (think of a CMS) but he also said that “the more people that can write code the better” and “system thinking is a important skill”. To me it’s also about system thinking; a kid on Facebook does not only need to know that he should not post weird pictures of himself, but he should also be aware of the economic system that drives the platform and how the user experiences is dictated by Facebook’s economic ambitions.

Rheingold closes with a somewhat provoking statement. He says that we need to “keep up with literacy in stead of keeping up with technology”. There wasn’t enough time to really get into this statement, but it is a thought provoking one. I am not sure I agree, because new technologies also force new kinds of literacies upon us. Google Glass illustrates this well in my opinion.

Do you have any thought on the matter?

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