How will income inequality shape digital literacy?

As several nations see income inequality escalate, how will that shape digital literacy efforts and practices?

I’ve been thinking about this for several years, as I’ve worked on digital literacy and been researching income inequality.  Some of our book club readings and discussions have spoken to this, like Our Kids and Capital in the 21st Century.

Let me throw out some factors, questions, and ideas.  I’ll focus on the United States for now, but want to move on beyond that country if possible.

I’m assuming a few things for this post: that income inequality will continue to increase; that we can analyze class a key factor; that we will value digital literacy at least as highly as we do now.

The digital divide – we’ve already seen class playing a role in who has access to what hardware, software, and network speed (my most recent article on this).  That divide should drive different skillsets, experiences, and expectations.  Could it mean that those with splendid digital capacity are more likely to understand streaming video, or using more high-end and technologically demanding software, such as 3d imaging apps?  Perhaps the lower classes will use Google Maps, while the upper GIS.

Will certain hardware be associated with the lower classes, yielding stigma, as Amanda Sturgill suggested?  Could software follow suit?  I can imagine coding becoming the sign of the lower classes (if compensation falls, especially through globalization), the upper (if coding requires rare teaching), or the middle.

One Hechinger Report article offers this vision:

imagine the difference between a classroom that is full of seamlessly integrated technology — laptops, desktops, tablets — and the classroom that only has one or two obsolete candy-colored iMacs on a shelf lining the back wall. In the affluent classroom, perhaps students regularly benefit from digital simulations and game-based learning. They have access not only to cutting-edge educational content, but also to the psychological, social and emotional benefits of digital game play.

Or, as a NASPA post observes, “[l]ow-income and first-generation students may not know how to use certain software programs or have the social capital needed to find out how those programs are used.”

Which brings up a related point: how will computer gaming fall out in terms of digital literacy?  Will understanding games become the mark of taste, or a sign of being a prole?  Will different types of games line up by class – say, hunting games for the rural poor, with indie games for the well educated?

Definitions – besides digital literacy, there is also digital fluency, digital competency, digital independence, and even digital sophistication.  Each has different resonances and multiple definitions, implications, and emphases.  Could we see different labels emerge for different classes?  Perhaps we’ll see some version of “remedial digital literacy” versus “advanced digital literacy”.

Related to this is the way digital literacy includes prior literacies for media and information.  If we correlate education with class, as America seems to be doing ever more closely, will the upper classes see themselves as more media and information literate than the rest?

Automation – how automation impacts digital literacy is a great topic, and let me pull out two elements.

First, who will have the most access to operating AI?  Who will receive the best education and training?  I could well imagine a scenario whereby AI is the province of the wealthy, who direct it across everyone else.  Alternatively, the 1 % own, but do not themselves handle the technology; the latter is delegated to coders as part of the middle class.

Second, what will be the class signature of robots?  That is, to which class will robot skills be assigned?  I could see robot mastery as a sign of the elite, given their greater economic cost.  On the other hand, robots’ association with repetitive and/or menial labor might drive their handling to the classes that would otherwise perform these tasks themselves.

Privacy – as multiple forms of surveillance burgeon, will we all be equally subjected to them, or will class break out different responses?  My sense is that in K-12 schools lower class students are more likely to be surveilled, generally speaking, and less likely to obtain power over their data; I’m not sure if that’s accurate, or if we can generalize from it.

The sense that schools more populated by lower class students are also more dangerous could ramp up surveillance there as well.

Will the elite be trained not in responding to surveillance, but in controlling, applying, and managing the surveillance of others?

Creativity  – some of us (but not all) see making and creating as key to digital literacy.  Yet it seems that teaching students to be creative, especially in secondary school, could different strongly by class.  Schools with lower funding (remember than K-12 funding in the United States is very local, generally) and serving students from lower income families could receive less education in the full range of digital creativity than schools for the elite.  Ultimately, digital literacy as digital expression could become an upper class marker.

These are opening questions for a larger discussion.  What do you think of these?  Which questions would you add?

(thanks to Steve Covello for suggestions on Twitter)

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5 Responses to How will income inequality shape digital literacy?

  1. Time for the reading group to do Cory Doctorow

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    I’d speculate that, on the whole, your proposition is insufficiently nuanced about the relationship of K-12 privacy and class. I’d offer instead that middle- and upper-class students will be surveilled just as heavily as lower-class students, but potentially along different axes and with more subtlety.

    TL;DR: I propose that elite parents are more invested in the surveillance of their progeny, not less. The call will come from inside the house!

    Consider, for example, the “safety reforms” we’re seeing enacted post-Parkland. Many parents, I think, seem to be prepared to sacrifice their children’s privacy for the perception of safety. More highly educated parents may be more prepared to suggest the ideas of algorithmic surveillance to protect their kids, while kids from less educated communities will have more blunt surveillance imposed from outside.

    Or consider that relationship between education, class, and class mobility. Parents in many districts can already access online gradebooks; it’s not at all hard for me to imagine some form of electronic dashboard which reports on your kid’s use of school computers and attempts to draw correlations with academic achievement. This presumes the money to contract those analytics out, the parents who believe they can read the dashboards accurately, and a belief that the metrics will correlate to class status, so I propose it will start in the higher-income school districts (and perhaps in charter and magnet schools).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh, those are very excellent points, Joe.
      I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen more surveillance than we have – no chipping yet, for example.

      This is a very interesting vision:
      “More highly educated parents may be more prepared to suggest the ideas of algorithmic surveillance to protect their kids, while kids from less educated communities will have more blunt surveillance imposed from outside.

  3. Nancy Marksbury says:

    At a small private college in upstate NY, we’re assessing the digital literacy skills of our students. Still early in our evaluation, but here’s one I didn’t expect to see: Google docs vs Microsoft Office. Students tend to have strength in one over the other, stemming from HS exposure? Could that be a metric of the school district from which they hail? The crossover between the two is not naturally navigated.

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