From Sumerian Priests to Google prediction algorithms: Towards a digital literacy

Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes

– Edward Dijkstra

The inventiveness and ingenuity of ancient civilisations is often a source of modern fascination. Among the earliest of these are the Sumerian, Babylonian and Chaldean civilisations that evolved in the flood planes of Mesopotamia from around 4000BC. It is within these cultures that we find the birth and evolution of mathematics. This knowledge was not held by a scientific elite but rather by an elite priestly class who observed the stars and, via the power of predictive mathematics, mediated between god and man. Thus what we have with these civilisations is not simply the roots of mathematics but also the roots of the division of society on the basis of mathematical literacy; those in the know presiding over the fates of those who do not.

This division of society along the lines of mathematical literacy is not isolated to these cultures, but rather seems to permeate all following instantiations. From Mayan Priests to Celtic Druids, right up until modern day Wall Street bankers and the forecasting algorithms of Google. Those who possess the power to calculate and leverage data from their environment rule over those who do not. Thus when today’s governments and other stakeholders speak of digital literacy, what do they actually mean? A true literacy in which all people share in this mathematics or a partial literacy that enables the masses to participate but never to reach a point of full self-governance? Have we truly reached a moment in history where we might evolve as a species through an open and shared approached to knowledge or are we as bloody-minded as ever?

It is interesting to reflect on these questions when considering our current historical moment, which is characterised by the rise and dominance of a very particular worldview: that of the scientist and engineer. This view itself is characterised by its preferences for efficiency, functionality and optimisation. The universal language in which the rules of this worldview are written is, unsurprisingly, mathematics. Thus we have a society characterised by a faith in science and engineering logic. The zeal with which this faith is pursued now permeates almost all aspects of social cohesion, from health to travel and warfare to education. It is this later topic of education that is of particular interest since the way in which people are taught to engage and interact with technology will define how they use it to build and develop the world around them. This in turn shapes the quality of life on the planet for those who live on it.

Current thinking on digital literacy is in many ways economically driven. The logic is roughly as follows: in order to leverage the value of technological innovation, the general populace must become digitally literate. To achieve this requires a significant educational push not only from within the educational system but also from local government entities, such as councils. To simplify the matter greatly, all stakeholders in this endeavour recognise that to build the emerging digital world, today’s children must learn to code just as today’s pensioners must learn to turn on a computer, pay bills using it and read emails.

Digital literacy activities aimed at children are of particular interest, since what children are taught now will not only define the skills that are common place to citizens in the future, but also the type of knowledge that people may consider common place. Thus decisions made today on the content and focus of digital literacy schemes will determine the skills set and mind set of tomorrow’s adults. What is interesting and frightening about many digital literacy schemes is the narrowness of their focus since they are concerned primarily with technical skills. To be blunt: children are being taught how to use technology without being taught how to think about the effects of using technology.

While the authenticity of the opening Edward Dijkstra quote is disputed its underlying tenets are not. For as anyone versed in the dark arts of computer science knows: the power of technology resides not simply in what it does, but also in how it does it. Technology has the ability to directly shape our engagement with it, our experience of ourselves, of each other and the world. These affects and their mechanics – which can be considered a kind of social engineering – are invisible to almost all end users and thus pass unchecked.

Speaking in terms of the development of digital literacy curriculum, might there not be some need for training in defence against these dark arts? For knowledge is power and if the aim of the mass deployment of digital technology is to truly create a better world for all, should digital literacy not only empower people to use technology but also to recognise and mediate against any of its ill effects? Further, should an understanding of its effects not be part of children’s education so that future developers implicitly think from an ethical and socially responsible perspective when developing both hardware and software?

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