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How Can We Identify and Communicate Ideas and Discussions about the Digital Society?

A post by Fiona Handley, Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton

Every summer I take the opportunity of catching up on some reading on technology. Sometimes this involves going through the back catalogue of journal articles that I’ve not managed to follow during the year, but this year, perhaps because of the heat wave, I was drawn to more thought-provoking material. Alongside the fun of some gentle mental stimulation while lying on a sun lounger lay a more pressing concern: I’m thinking about how to shift the way we talk and think about digital literacies, to include not just self-reflection, but also to refer to and be grounded in wider debates about digital society. This is one element of the scaffolding that underpins Jisc’s well known definition of digital literacies – “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society” – that remains relatively unexplored.

My thoughts coalesced around the contrast between the work of two authors, both producing incredibly useful and enjoyable material, ideal for summer study. The first is a book familiar to readers of this blog, as it was reviewed earlier this year, Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life; the second, The Digital Human, Radio 4’s technology series, available as podcasts from the BBC website, presented by Aleks Krotoski. These complemented each other well and I was struck by how both authors handled similar important issues in different ways.

As current reflections on the state of digital society, both Greenfield’s book and Krotoski’s podcasts offer viewpoints from people who have been fully immersed in understanding the digital world – Greenfield at Razorfish and Nokia, Krotoski as a social psychologist who studied online communities and gaming for her PhD. In line with the current zeitgeist, despite this, or perhaps because of it, both bring a critical approach to bear on technology in society, exploring, questioning and probing in equal turn.

You may be familiar with their work, but to set the scene Greenfields’s Radical Technologies unpicks chapter by chapter the headline technologies of the last few years, exploring their origins, their vision, the reality on the ground, and carefully works through future scenarios of their impact – will they be truly radical? One of Greenfield’s main interests is cities (he has taught at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture), and he explores the tech headlines from the hype, the history, to the everyday impacts that they will have on people working, residing and moving through the urban landscape. You can engage with his writing at many levels – the technological (his accessible description of Bitcoin and blockchain is peerless), the political (his account of the tussle between large corporations and idealism in 3D printing), or the social (the effects of automation on jobs).

Krotoski’s Digital Human podcasts offer a different ride through the digital world. With the 15th series soon to be aired on Radio 4 and a back catalogue of episodes starting in 2012, this extensive resource is based around each episode exploring one key idea. The looseness of these ideas, starting with ‘Capture’ and most recently ‘Detached’ draws on Krotoski’s psychology training to bring together a collage of academic research, interviews with experts, descriptions of technology and online resources, and voices of people who have experienced these phenomena, held together with her thought-provoking commentary. What makes these distinctive is that for a technology programme, the digital content is not the focus, and is more often introduced as an observation, the parallel example, or the bridge to another idea.

Both authors inevitably touch upon the same subjects, for example the convenience of digital devices making once very disparate experiences increasingly similar. Greenfield highlights how mobile devices now use the same set of gestures to achieve what were once very different physical and social experiences of finding romantic partners, shopping, listening to music, and communicating with friends, while Krotoski highlights that these represent the key interests of (young male) software developers. These services such as instant pizza delivery, one of Krotoski’s interviewees states, fulfil needs that a ‘mommy’ would have previously met. Presented as labour saving, they are instead fuelling new, poorer paid jobs for other people.

This particular podcast, called Friction, begins and ends with an interview with a rock climber, which bookends segments from an anthropologist, a cycle courier and the head of a strategy lab, which gives you an indication of the diversity of content and the deft interweaving that brings them all together. In contrast, Greenfield’s chapters do exactly what they say on the tin – they explore a particular technology from a historical perspective and a particular political standpoint, setting out a narrative of its origins, development, then a subplot usually involving how the laudable social aims have been sucked into neoliberal commerce, then a prediction. Unlike the traditional narratives of the progress of digital technology, or indeed any other fairy tale, there is no happy ending, and Greenfield’s forecast is bleak in terms of the privileged place of digital in emancipatory social change.

My new quest, then, is to think about how to communicate and integrate these kind of issues into staff development of digital literacies, to raise awareness, to inspire interest, to create a context to the digital skills, but also to begin to normalize thinking critically about digital issues into that cornerstone of the University experience, critical thinking. Finding how to do this is important, because the act of creating a curriculum – albeit an informal one – shapes people’s language and ideas, and creates the template for sharing these ideas further. How we present these issues to academic staff will inform how they in turn approach or indeed avoid, sharing them with their students.

Both Greenfield’s historical narrative approach and Krotoski’s horizontal, reflective approach can contribute to this. I’m mindful of balancing an awareness of the bleakness of some of these realities and predictions, with a more positive view of what power we (and academic staff) have as educators locally within our institutions to shape digital experiences and prepare our students to face similar challenges in wider society. The strong narrative approach of digital technological development is very familiar (see Neil Selwyn’s work for a sustained critique), and while this new narrative has a darker ending, the strength of it leaves little room for exploring the local, creative and messier uses of technology that may have a bigger immediate impact on learning. In many ways Krotoski’s more contextual approach resonates better with learning technology which, in theory at least, begins with the broad idea (learning) and then considers the technology.

A first step, then, will be to create more curriculum space in our staff development for highlighting and exploring issues through juxtaposition of ideas, sharing of personal reflections, and open-ended discussion. They can draw on the anecdotes, experiences and resources that all tech-loving learning technologists squirrel away, and use these to highlight issues and create connections. And while these spaces need not tackle the difficult issues head on, they must not neglect the shifting power relationships that technology engenders. The key aim here is to allow people to reflect on and account for their personal and professional technology use, adding further dimensions to their technology decision making which forms the backbone of digital literacy, and providing them with knowledge and language to help them to engage further in digital society. And by contributing to discussion they will themselves help develop this curriculum, and in turn help shape the wider institutional digital culture.

So as we approach the end of summer, and head towards the ALT Annual Conference in Manchester, this blog post ends with a call to find the places and spaces within our presentations and discussions to highlight these wider issues. A conference is a safe space to explore these contexts and connections, and to find the language and ways of discussing issues that will ultimately help shape the understanding of staff and students, and transform the cultures of the institutions where we work.

References

Adam Greenfield 2017 Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. London: Verso

Neil Selwyn 2017 Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Bloomsbury, 2nd Edition.

 

Dr Fiona Handley is a Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton. She works with learning technologists on blended learning and digital literacy projects, leads on the University’s Digital Literacies Framework, and has a research interest in students as partners projects that have a technology focus. @fiona_handley 

For ALT’s 25th Annual Conference we will bring together different critical perspectives in Learning Technology from across our community that will examine the challenges ahead and question the shape of things to come. For more details, visit the conference website https://altc.alt.ac.uk/2018/ 

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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