When I initially sat down to write this provocation, I came up just a little blank. Of course students need to learn internet and information literacy. Of course we’re coming up short. Of course we see inconsistencies among students, implying that people across the socio-economic spectrum have different levels of access to web literacy. To put it bluntly; I struggled to come up with an observation (or a provocation) that wasn’t just reinforcement of the fact that fake news is bad.
So, I arrived here. I want to address a few separate issues here. My hope is to come up with questions as I write down my thoughts.
- The issue of human vulnerability
- The question of internet literacy, academia, and pedagogy
- The unspoken systemic issues at the heart of the disparities in the above
I also want to note that, although I don’t focus on it here, I was deeply interested in the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I want to draw attention to it despite my lack of direct engagement.
1. These readings overwhelmingly focus on a nexus of problems that the internet presents its users, but don’t substantially unpack why users are so vulnerable to those problems.
In college, I took a course about thinking, judgement, and decision making. This class, ostensibly about psychology, functioned as a crash course in the fallibility of human thought. We call these fallibilities “heuristics,” a term laden with a sort of delightful irony—the word ‘heuristic’ comes from the Greek εὑρίσκω, which means “I discover” or “I find.” It shares a root with “eureka.” At their core, heuristics are cognitive short-cuts developed over millennia of evolution. In a certain way, heuristics are brilliant, incredible facets of the human mind. They allow us to make effective decisions and judgements in as little time as possible. Yet, these heuristics in no way evolved to manage the onslaught of information that we encounter in the contemporary age.
When I think about that class in conjunction with this week’s readings, I first think my professor, Barry Schwartz, who made a name for himself giving a series of TedTalks and lectures about the paradox of choice—the idea that the more choices people get, the more paralyzed they become. I think about the fact that the sheer quantity of information—the sheer volume of sources on the internet—renders our ability to discern between sources inert. There are simply too many options; the human mind must be overwhelmed or paralyzed. So, how do we resolve this paralysis? Unfortunately, I suspect that this is where other heuristics come into play. Confirmation bias and the availability heuristic seem to be the most likely candidates. The former pushes us to choose sources that support our existing beliefs, and the latter pushes us to overestimate the likelihood of certain events or ideas based on our personal attachment or memory of them. Pile on the backfire effect (wherein people react to evidence that undermines their beliefs by clinging more firmly to those beliefs) and the self-relevance effect (wherein information that pertains to ourselves and our beliefs is more easily retained than information that is not immediately relevant), and we have a perfect storm of impossibility.
In other words, even given internet literacy, it is incredibly difficult to overcome the cognitive biases that help us make choices, retain information, and establish beliefs.
2. Given this, I found myself perseverating on the impossibility of teaching effective internet and information literacy; we’re essentially attempting to override cognitive short-cuts that are hard-wired into our brains. On the one hand, we absolutely should be teaching children how to spot problematic sources or sources that exploit cognitive biases. On the other, there’s something so tragically cynical about the fact that we have to teach young children to approach all information with skepticism rather than wonder. Of course we should be using systems like SIFT (effectively a heuristic itself) to simplify the process of identifying legitimate and misleading information.
When I teach my students how to write a paper, I devote two weeks (at least) to source finding and research. I walk them through the differences between an academic source, a news-source, fake news, blogs, opinions, and so on. I expect them to learn the difference between spurious and legitimate sources, but I also find myself cringing a little at the implications. I seem to be placing the onus of truth and truth-finding (and thus, in a way, the act of “constructing authority”) on my students rather than on the world at large.
My immediate response is that I hope to live in a world where people care about the information they absorb. That is, I do think that digital literacy is essential—but I’m not sure what the difference is between digital literacy and critical thinking. In other words, I find myself wondering what the difference is between digital and text-based literacy. I find myself suspecting that when we talk about one, we’re essentially talking about the other. Obviously, the modalities and methodologies are different (a tweet is not a handwritten note, after all, and a painting has a different provenance than a doctored or stolen photo), but the sense of it is the same; applying critical thinking to the information we absorb.
3. Finally, I want to briefly address the fact that, although one of these readings discussed race and socio-economic factors in coding and digital artifacts, none addressed the gap in digital literacy across the socio-economic spectrum. I am not an expert here, but I do want to draw attention to this lacuna.
Across the board, research has found persistent disparities in digital literacy across socio-economic strata. Lower-income students, for example, are limited to less expensive devices that do not enable simultaneous tab examination, leading them to engage deeply with only one source at a time rather than a broad spectrum. Likewise, internet access is inconsistent in lower-income households—a fact that has become aggressively apparent during the pandemic
danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and visiting professor at NYU, noted in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review that “The internet is reinforcing already existing structural divides.” That is, new technologies amplify extant problems, especially in situations where parents don’t have the literacy (digital or text) “interpret what’s true and what’s not. They don’t even necessarily have the critical apparatus to ask the right questions about what they see” (reading this quote, I find myself asking what the “right” questions are, anyway).
So, given all these thoughts, I find myself asking a few questions:
- What are the heuristics (or mental short-cuts) we use when sifting through the massive amount of information online?
- When you think about the way you interact with the internet, do you encounter feelings of abundance? Paralysis? How might digital literacy engage with each of those feelings? (I’m aware this is a “bad question”—a biased one. I still think it’s important.)
- Is digital literacy different from text-based literacy? Different from critical thinking?
- 4. How much responsibility do we have in generating plans for literacy? How much responsibility do our students have in reproducing or producing information?
- How can we close the gap in literacy across the socio-economic spectrum? (This is, I suspect, unanswerable—but if we could dream/dare/etc., how might we BEGIN?)
- What are the results we want to see in such a plan?
- Finally, who is digital literacy for?