Survival skills for the digital age
In May 2010 the European Commission adopted its Digital Agenda, with “enhancing digital literacy skills and inclusion” as a priority. “Improving digital literacy is crucial to Europe’s future,” Commissioners Neelie Kroes and Androulla Vassiliou announced. “We must invest in the e-skills of all EU citizens to make sure that no one is left behind as the economy goes digital." But who can benefit from what kind of training, and in which areas?
First, a little background. For two decades before the advent of the World Wide Web, researchers used the Internet to offer each other direct access to their data, for email and to participate in discussions. One result was that prominent researchers were overwhelmed with correspondence. It was partly to deal with this problem that Robert Cailliau at CERN helped to invent the World Wide Web – to be able to simply flag information that he had already posted online.
The World Wide Web made it relatively easy for anyone prepared to learn basic HTML coding to publish to the world. Many of these people had jobs dealing with correspondence or writing reports, but now they were no longer writing for a clearly defined audience known to them.
Instead they needed to carry out an essential editorial task: to review a text from the points of view of multiple potential readers and to refine it to make sense to all. They had to ask important questions: Will the least-informed target readers be able to grasp the information? Will they know what “ICT” or “SME” mean, for example? If the text is to be read in people’s second or third language, does it contain any cultural references or attempts at humour that could be misunderstood?
Then came Web 2.0, which made widespread publication accessible to anyone who could type. Now hundreds of millions of people face those same editorial challenges. So in principle, Internet users could all benefit from a certain amount of training in editorial and communications skills. But policymakers also need to focus on developing Internet users’ “defensive” abilities, because of the wide range of privacy problems posed by Web 2.0.
Confidentiality issues are not new to social media. But users – especially among the younger generation – need to be drilled in appreciating that postings and images they create may be viewable beyond their intended audience. They also need to be aware that material they post online may be in the public domain to the extent that it can be legitimately be reused by others.
Of course, many Internet users are basically consumers rather than authors of online information. As such, users need to be made aware of the importance of a healthy dose of “organised scepticism” – to borrow a phrase used last year by former UK Chief Scientific Adviser Robert May to characterise science. He added: “Science is a powerful way of asking the right question, no more, no less.”
The same applies to Internet users. They are required to be their own editor and fact-checker. They should to be aware of the potential for conflict of interest in the provenance of every piece of data they come across. They need to ask, for example, if a certain email message does, in fact, come from their bank. They also need to ask if products advertised online or in email shots – anything from software that magically speeds up your Internet connection to stick-on patches claimed to protect against supposed mobile phone radiation – will really do what it says “on the label” or are in fact akin to snake oil.
As the Internet pervades the economy and society, governments, schools and universities will need to take a multidisciplinary approach to the skills required for digital communications. Training focused on communications skills, “netiquette” and privacy considerations should help users present themselves and their opinions effectively and steer clear of potential pitfalls on the web. And they will also need to be introduced to the importance of healthy scepticism – although so far, there isn’t any specific course focused on imparting that mindset.
This article was originally published in the 8th edition of the Futures Magazine.