There is no such thing as reality. There are stories that we tell one another, narratives that gain more or less traction and memetic phrases which help organise our experiences. As soon as such stories become less useful in the way of belief we can (and should) jettison them for ones that work better and that help us make sense of such experiences. That’s the Pragmatic philosophy to which I subscribe.
During times of fiscal instability and uncertainty societies naturally gravitate towards conservatism. This is evident both in the financial conservatism of public sector cuts but also in social conservatism – right down to retro designs in advertising. The 24-hour news industry feeds and catalyses this.
One thing I’ve noticed recently is, as Martin Weller puts it, the beginnings of a ‘backlash’ against newer (and particularly social) technologies:
The signs are that this year will be one marked by something of a backlash against social media/ web 2.0/ any internet stuff. I don’t mean from the traditional media, who’ve always been suspicious, but from people who know what they’re talking about and have been advocates. In other words, increasingly ‘us lot’ will be declaring that this stuff is peripheral, uncool, over- rated, etc.
I’d go further than this. There are always those (who call themselves) ‘thought-leaders’ who aim to be disruptive or, at least, contrarian who are always looking for something that will get them attention. All it takes is for someone to say that they were wrong about technology xyz for a feeding-frenzy of “I told you so” to take place. One competing story amongst many starts to appear ‘legitimate’.
It would seem incomprehensible to my 16 year-old self that I have absolutely no idea who is currently Number 1 in the singles chart. Last Saturday was the first time this season that I’ve watched the football programme ‘Match of the Day’. When it comes down to it all, reality is the coherence-through-storytelling that we paint as a veneer upon shared experience. To my mind, social media is one of the best ways I know to engage in such narratives.
Having found readers of this blog very helpful in the past – especially when it came to my most recent job description – I thought I’d ask for your help again. The input of all my readers to what follows, but especially those of a philosophical persuasion like Stephen Downes and George Siemens, would be fantastic.
What follows is a rough, not-long-enough first draft of introduction to my Ed.D. thesis. Trouble is, my interests have led to a slightly different focus from that outlined in my thesis proposal; I need a new working title, please! :-p
The structure of my Ed.D. thesis is going to be something like:
Worldviews on ‘digital literacy’ (how various education systems around the world discuss the area)
‘Digital literacy’ in the UK (analysis of stakeholder policies and discussions of the area)
‘Digital literacy’ & educational institutions (suggestions of ways in which schools & universities can promote the skills congruent with the area)
So please, read this rough outline to my introduction and I’d love it if you could think of a title. I’m currently thinking of something as simple as: What is ‘Digital Literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation.
(Rough) introduction to Ed.D. thesis
“All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern.” (Berger & Luckmann, 2002:42)
Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’ then meaningful discourse can ensue.
All human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from their forebears. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way – usually involving politics or economics – that alter human relationships.
This thesis shall discuss the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It shall be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist.” (Pinker, 2002:202) As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term ‘digital literacy’, other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, ‘literacy’.
When dealing with conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of ‘reality’ and, indeed, ‘truth‘. Without wishing here to go into too much phenomenological and philosophical depth, it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competence’, ‘digital fluency’ and so on are of a different order than ‘sky’, ‘chair’, and ‘lamp’. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of ‘digital literacy’ that this thesis shall discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions.
To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth and slips into solipsism, then, this thesis will employ a pragmatic methodology. This way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James. Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no ‘end to enquiry’ and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience.” (James, 1995:21)
The above meshes with the phenomenological account presented earlier; if we are socially-constructing what we term ‘reality’, then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual ‘realities’ and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As James (1995:20) puts it,
There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.
With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no or could make no difference in practice shall either be only mentioned in passing or disregarded entirely. Although a non-empirical thesis, what comes hereafter is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers.
Note: This blog post is to clarify my thoughts on the subject and provide an easy point-of-reference as I begin to write the Literature Review section of my Ed.D. thesis. Feel free to skip it if that’s not the reason for which what you came here/subscribed to my RSS feed! You can read my thesis proposal here and I collate links and quotes from my research on my wiki. 🙂
As I ‘write’ this I am looking through corrective lenses at a screen that is a representation of a digital ‘reality’. The alphabet by which the words and sentences are constructed is a social construct, as is the programming language by which the website on which you’re reading this came into existence. This also applies to concepts such as ‘bachelor’, ‘virgin’ and, indeed, any other idea that presupposes a limit to its application.
‘Digital literacy’ is one such concept. It is a social construct that has gained some momentum by its explanatory power in the face of technological change that has left some bewildered by the abilities of one generation with respect to another. That the term ‘literacy’ is attached to the concept shows the historical legacy, applicability and origin of the term. It is a concept mostly applied by an older generation about a younger generation (and especially the attitude towards technology of the latter).
Literacy used to have a rather precise definition: the ability to read and write with a pre-determined level of proficiency. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, literacy has been applied to much more wide-ranging concepts such as Multimedia literacy, Computer literacy, Information literacy, Technacy (or Technological literacy), Critical literacy, Media literacy, and Health literacy. This appears to be akin to early descriptions of cars as ‘horseless carriages’, the understanding of the new through an old, outdated framework. Or, to put it more formally, in the words of Berger & Luckmann (2002:49-50),
What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future.
Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.
What is necessary, therefore, when looking at concepts that are defined socially and in the light of their historical use, is to determine their ‘cash-value’. The Pragmatic method, invented (arguably) jointly by C.S. Peirce and William James, would seem to be a useful approach. James states the method thus (James 1995:21),
But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.
To explain a difference between ‘standard’ literacy and ‘digital’ literacy, therefore, means to see what difference there is between the two in practice:
There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. (James 1995:20)
It is necessary to go beyond simple ontological arguments as to whether or not ‘digital literacy’ exists and instead flesh out whether belief in such a concept would make a tangible difference. My thesis will be concerned less with dogmatic attack or defence of particular terms and rather more with the ‘cash-value’ of concepts such as ‘digital literacy’.
Associated ideas such as ‘digital natives’ vs ‘digital immigrants’ (or more recent distinctions such as ‘digital resident/outsider’) will tangentially be discussed, especially in their usefulness as ways of understanding attitudes towards technology. The latter term – ‘technology’ – shall also be defined more accurately, perhaps as having a ‘digital’ aspect rather than being the use of any man-made object to achieve an particular human end.
My idea when beginning my thesis is that I shall not discover a coherent set of ideas and assumptions behind terms such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competency’, ‘digital fluency’, and the like. Still, as heuristics, as commonly-agreed methods by which to understand an observed difference, they will ‘work’ and have a ‘cash-value’ during an indeterminate and temporary period. Much, in fact, like the term ‘horseless carriage’. :-p