Reflecting on digital, media and information literacy…

This blog has been used on the MA: Digital Technologies, Communication and Education (MA: DTCE) for a while, but has been moribund in the last year or so. So I hope no one minds too much if, for a little while anyway, I (Drew Whitworth) take it over for use on my Digital, Media and Information Literacy (EDUC61712) course in semester 2 2019-20.

Mobile phones
Mobile communications: the focus of the current information conflict over Huawei

As it was suspended last year due to my taking a sabbatical, and ran in semester 1 the year before, over two years have passed since I last taught DMIL and four since the course itself, its content and structure, were last worked on to any great extent. It is safe to say that a lot has happened since 2016. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter have been directly implicated in a range of political controversies including the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the EU, while the US administration and their counterparts in Beijing scrap to retain control over their (and everyone else’s) informational technologies, most obviously through the current battle over Huawei and its involvement in new 5G mobile infrastructure.

More indirectly, the ways in which everyone, young and old alike, encounter, filter, process, judge and produce information have clearly, and probably irrevocably, changed thanks to information technology. This change has been most obvious in the last 20 years thanks to the rise of the aforementioned social media companies and other big IT players like Google and Apple, but (as week 5 of the DMIL course will investigate in detail), the fundamental shifts they have wrought are all prefigured in the history of IT as it began to emerge in the 1930s; and even before then, in the development of technologies such as those used for navigation and ‘analogue’ informational processing. But it is in the last few years that concerns over what these changes mean for our ability, across the whole of society, to sustain basic democratic principles have become acute.

If we have a President of the USA who, according to the Washington Post (one of the most prestigious of the US newspapers, which now displays the words “Democracy Dies in Darkness” at the top of its web pages) made 16,241 false or misleading claims in the first three years of office, and moreover, that this is not seen as being particularly damaging to that President’s opnion ratings…  What has happened? What are the causes of these informational wounds and pathologies?

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt

Though, in some ways, public legislators are gaining some ground on questions of informational rights, if someone as powerful as Google CEO Eric Schmidt (pictured) can blithely crow that “privacy is dead, get used to it”, then this is a quite shocking dismissal of fundamental human qualities, seemingly just because the technology is ‘there’ and the benefits it apparently brings (to some, anyway) are considered so self-evident that we can and should gloss over the consenquences of its unfettered use.

My personal engagement with the digital world has largely been a productive one, I think. I mean this in both senses, firstly that it has ended up being the basis of most of my professional career (both my research and teaching interests); but also that I have produced plenty of my own online content down the years. I have blogged about this before, and so there’s no need to repeat any of that personal history here. I have this relationship with the online sphere because I basically like writing, and find in the digital a medium that I enjoy using. Hopefully, my texts, these utterances from my digital self, can make the online world a more enjoyable and useful space for others, too.

But the digital infrastructures that are shaping our lives are not being built by me or any other blogging academic. They are being built by Schmidt and Huawei and others like them; and the vision of the Internet’s early pioneers, and other innovators such as Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web: more on all this in later weeks), of a global sphere of information, a domain of the mind (or noösphere) accessible and open to all, is under serious threat.

The coronavirus seen through a microscope

The first class of DMIL last Friday (7th Feb.) might have even displayed some evidence of this. With many of my on-campus students this year being Chinese, the crisis around the coronavirus outbreak, and the subsequent restrictions placed on travel to and from China, seemed to me a good focus for this class as it was not just a health, but social and political issue that affected many of these students personally and had given rise to a wide range of claims and counterclaims in a number of different media. I hoped to prompt a discussion on the competing credibility of different sources, from official (that is, governmental) spokespeople, through to the broadcast media in different countries and then more informally, social media and gossip.

It was, first of all, interesting that the bulk of the students, when asked to find out what they could about the virus and the outbreak, needed a lot of prompting to go beyond official Chinese government sources. Certainly there was no mention of oppositional sources of information about the country (such as the China Digital Times, for example).  There was some discussion of personal contact (such as with relatives still in the country), but other than that all that really came up were the Chinese Global Times and the BBC. When the latter was mentioned it was clear that a large majority of those in the room did not consider the BBC an unbiased source. The balance and objectivity of the Global Times and Chinese official sources were also questioned as well.

As a critical educator I welcome these kinds of difference of view, but if this reflects wider entrenched problems with how information can be shared across these perspectives, to allow us to learn our way out of this and other crises. If informational landscapes fragment to such an extent that we begin to lose the possibility of synthesis, sharing of insights, data and informed opinions across their boundaries — how will the world effectively learn its way out of the problems it faces?

It is concerns such as these that highlight the importance of the educational problems that are provoked by digital technologies. These are the basic subject matter of the course as it runs from now through into May. I don’t promise a blog post like this every week, but we’ll see how the mood takes me. Do follow me (@DrewWhitworth1) on Twitter and the #DMIL2020 hashtag, however.


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