The powers of digital literacies: responding to danah boyd and all

How should we best teach digital and media literacy?  How can such teaching respond to today’s politically and technologically polarized milieu?

Last week a discussion brewed across Twitter and the blogosphere as several digital literacy people (Benjamin Doxtdator, Maha Bali, Renee Hobbs, Britni Brown O’Dell) responded to danah boyd’s SXSW keynote.  Here’s a video of the latter:

I chimed in on Twitter belatedly, caught between storms, travel, presenting, and consulting.  danah then responded with a blog post, and invited all of us to reply.

So here I am.

I’ll respond to key items from both her blog post and the original speech, as best as I can.

(NB: I’m writing this between a dozen plane flights and on various new medications.  Hopefully it is coherent.)

Some personal background: I’ve been involved with information and digital literacy efforts since the 1990s.  I’ve published and spoken on these topics, as well as closely related ones (copyright).  I built and led an information fluency effort at Centenary College.

To the discussion, and starting with actual media literacy: in her speech boyd argues that “a perverted version of media literacy does already exist… When tech is involved, it often comes in the form of ‘don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google.'”  My experience of this differs from danah’s and also from some others’ in this discussion, I think.  I don’t have nearly the K-12 immersion that danah has had.  I work primarily (although not exclusively) in higher ed, but over the past twenty years I have traveled to, and worked with many people working in, hundreds of campuses in the United States (and beyond, but the US is, I think, the frame of this discussion).  I have also studied digital literacy (which includes media literacy) across American higher ed (and globally, but ditto).

My sense is that, yes, there is still a strong antipathy towards Wikipedia – not just “treat it as an encyclopedia, with the limitations that form historically affords”, and not “it’s a social platform, so let’s study and even edit it”, but “avoid the Wikipedia.”  I’ve seen this across institutional types and geography.  At the same time, I’ve heard from faculty and librarians who either celebrate Wikipedia or just quietly allow its use.  I’ve had some fantastic and bizarre conversations with educators about this.

I have also seen many and varied information and digital literacy programs throughout higher education.  These don’t focus on the difference “between CNN and Fox”, as danah also noted, but on finding information in the general digital ecosystem, especially for scholarly work.  Such programs are often housed in academic libraries and driven by their librarians.  They are often about helping students calibrate trust in response to the open web’s many forms, and in identifying securely trusted sources accessed through databases and portals (JSTOR, Google Scholar, library sites, etc.).

“I am not arguing that media literacy causes hatred. I’m arguing that it doesn’t solve it. And, more importantly, that a well-intended but ineffective intervention can actually do harm.”

I agree with this, and applaud the citation of Tripodi’s important work on evangelical hermeneutics.  I am especially pleased at taking religiously conservative viewpoints – and students – seriously and thoughtfully, rather than as villains (“I worry about how people judge those they don’t understand or respect”).  I’ve taught at a college deep in America’s Bible Belt, and know well the dynamics of teaching progressive/feminist/critical theory/Marxist/etc. content and approaches to politically opposed students.  (Which includes supporting students there who are engaging positively with such ideas, and who are all too often disappeared by liberals from other regions; ah, geographic prejudice is alive and well in the US.)   It’s really easy to backfire.  In short, blue can boost red.

“Can you give me examples of programs that are rooted in, speaking to, and resonant with conservative and religious communities in this country? In particular, I’d love to know about programs that work in conservative white Evangelical and religious black and LatinX communities?”

This is a great question, and I can’t point to such programs in the United States.

I can point to the work a group of us did last year in international digital literacy, working with the late New Media Consortium.  One of our findings was that nations and regions often expressed different frameworks for teaching, and understandings of, digital literacy.  That included, among other things, a stronger emphasis on media literacy in the Middle East and North Africa; it might be worth exploring those frameworks, as different as the context is.  The European tendency to emphasize aligning student growth with national and EU-level regulations is interesting, and I could imagine transplanting that to the US backfiring.  I do wonder about the African emphasis on digital literacy for economic purposes – jobs and economic growth – and if that approach could cross political and religious divides.

“How do you stabilize students’ trust in Information, particularly among those whose families are wary of institutions and Information intermediaries?”

This is a great question, although my take might differ from others’ in this discussion.

For one, I’m fascinated by the authority politics of digital literacy.  As I wrote earlier, one way of viewing new developments in the field is as a struggle over where authority should be located: in empowered individuals making critical choices themselves, or in trusted institutions, including ones established before the Web.  While Trump has slammed some tv news and newspapers, a lightly dialectical response has occurred, with people flocking to pay the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian (whose American coverage success story is fascinating), and others to get behind paywalls support their coverage.  I’ve also seen calls to support certain tv news outlets – CNN, MSNBC – along with their being cited uncritically.  I have not seen a return to authority for other, classic gatekeepers, like librarians, radio stations, or print publishers, but each longs for more.  This is classic American politics – individuals versus authority – and also ancient human politics.

I’m also less concerned about what some call a crisis of authority.  I do take Mike Caulfield’s observations seriously, especially on a practical level.  At a broader level I am concerned about some strange or addled beliefs insofar as they have public impact, such as antivaxxers keeping dangerous diseases alive (Bruce Sterling: “anti-vaxxers are a greater public health menace than the NRA”), young Earth creationists squelching biology teaching, and climate change denialists working to stop all kinds of research and policy.

At the same time I see many authorities doing just fine.  As mentioned above, for all of Trump’s bluster, many of his media targets are healthier now than in 2016.  This, despite their well known biases and grievous problems, which I’ve written about in terms of national tv news.  Criticizing major news media is and has always been a fine thing – do I need to cite Chomsky on this, or refer to plentiful examples, like the Washington Post’s little blacklist article?

I don’t know if this is what Kate Bowles was thinking of with this tweet, but it might align:

Or Renee Hobbs:

I’ve been concerned about those who teach media literacy as a valorization of mainstream media or who present it as merely making simplistic distinctions between fact and opinion.

I’m also leery of dismissing opposition to one’s preferred authority without taking that resistance seriously.  For example, while I abhor anti-vaxxers, I’m mindful of how the medical establishment all too easily runs roughshod over patients, especially those from marginalized populations.  At another level, we can think of the bizarrely underdiscussed habit of Americans in refusing to punish public figures for horrendous mistakes and crimes, such as invading Iraq, conducting torture, failing to perceive much less stop 9-11, all the way back to Iran-Contra’s perpetrators largely escaping justice.  Think, too, of how many bankers and policymakers were prosecuted or otherwise punished for the 2008 financial meltdown.  Remember how successful both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were in connecting with voters on the theme of “the economic game being rigged”; that isn’t a fantasy in an age of increasing economic inequality and decreasing economic mobility.  In short, there are reasons for distrusting authority we can pay heed to, and should, if we want to build up trust.

Beyond the media world and the United States, we’re seeing political authorities expanding their powers, from China to the Philippines to Russia and Poland.  While some are suspicious of populist movements as rebellious or unsettling, authoritarian politicians can readily adopt those insurgent energies into rule.  We may be heading into an illiberal, rather than (classically) liberal age.  This is another reason I am skeptical of pushing for more trust in authorities, and am often sympathetic to anti-authoritarians.

Shorter: go read Renee Hobbs.

Back to boyd and her final note:

when I try to untangle the threads to actually address the so-called “fake news” problem, I always end in two places: 1) dismantle financialized capitalism (which is also the root cause of some of the most challenging dynamics of tech companies); 2) reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people. But neither of those are recommendations for educators. <grin>

Bravo for returning to the problems of capitalism, and another cheer for mentioning financialization, which often drops out of American political discourse (either because it’s complex and unsexy, or because certain politics depend on finance).

However, I firmly disagree with this conclusion, even with the ultimate smile.  These are precisely tasks for educators.

Dismantling financialized capitalism is something we can research and teach – and do.  We have generations of left-wing pedagogy to draw upon, like the work of Myles Horton and Paolo Friere (cf our passionate book club reading).  We have recent political movements, like Occupy, the coalition around Bernie Sanders, and the rising Democratic Socialists of America.  There are people doing this now.  No, 5th grade teachers and university adjuncts alone can’t win the White House and Congress with a left-wing political party, but they can play a role.  As one does in a democracy.

Similarly, instructors can actually work to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.”  We do and have often done this in a variety of ways, from nurturing learning communities to supporting interracial busing to service learning to social justice pedagogy in the classroom (for example).  I think open education – open access in scholarly publishing, open education resources, open teaching – is also a fine way to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.”

One more point: I’m a bit surprised to not see more calls for the open web in this conversation.  If we want to get away from platforms we see as multiply dangerous (Facebook in particular, it seems), then we could posit some better sites.  I’m for RSS and the blogosphere.  Others may plump for Mastodon.

I’d like to say more about this from a futures perspective, since that’s my job, but not in this post, which is already way too long.

One final, meta, small note: it’s interesting how much of this conversation happened on Medium, rather than on self-hosted or other-hosted blogs.

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15 Responses to The powers of digital literacies: responding to danah boyd and all

  1. Ted Newcomb says:

    Actually I think the fact that most of this has been on Medium points to another big shift towards a new journalism away from ‘established’ sites. People are still self-promoting, but they are moving away from being ‘stringers’ and contributors to publishing their own material on new sites like Medium and Ello.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      How does Medium shape publishing, I wonder?
      Will they seek to moderate or otherwise control content?
      They do have a paywall.

  2. davin says:

    This is a great argument that’s happening. I feel like we are finally moving into a meaningful direction. I am still not settled on what an ultimate answer looks like… in fact, I think the pursuit of an ultimate answer is part of the problem. The idea of mechanizing the process of settling arguments is itself really toxic. I agree that there is a struggle over epistemology. But it is related to a second issue: what is the role of knowledge in society (it’s not strictly about winning fights or making money, though it has a value).

    I have heard people describe recourse to the internet and social media as merely another instance of the “social knowledge base,” only expanded. But the true value of a social knowledge base serves an organic function to reinforce social relationships across differences. The true value of the “social knowledge base” is to reinforce the individual’s place within a community. For instance, what young people might lack in wisdom and experience, they make up in originality and energy. What their elderly neighbor might lack in energy or physical strength, they might make up for in wisdom or skill. The result is that our need and hunger for knowledge motivates us to pursue relationships with others. The cultivation of a healthy community relies upon the very potential for social difference to motivate connection. When this process is disrupted, we let real neighborly/familial/community relations collapse… and that decline has a cost. And, in doing so, we unlearn the social practices that moderate polarization. And we unlearn the organic skill set that allows us to sort and prioritize different forms of communication and understand the difference between beliefs, emotions, and anecdotes, which is really important for the development of emotional intelligence (and which can directly help us when we are in danger). Instead of listening to your grandfather tell some sprawling anecdote that merges family history with some life lesson that answers the problem you face…. it’s easier to just google it.

    Of course, community itself is not the only solution. Communities can be very exclusive and their practices can be romanticized/rationalized in very bad ways. But the way that community is being reframed in the context of social media platforms and an economy that monetizes intensity rather than moderation… and that uses emotional intensity to make up for the lack of proximity redefines community along some dangerous lines that fuel radicalism and alienation.

    I think that we should think about the internet less like a meal that feeds us and more like a Sam’s Club. It gives us information in its crudest form. And if you need a lot of rice…. then buy the 50 pound bag. But you cannot eat a 50 pound bag of rice without cooking it, adding ingredients, and hopefully sharing it with others. (Also, I think there is something kind of treacherous about the romance of mass distribution…. Fast food is delicious, but I think that many people feel as if they are going to be the McDonald’s of knowledge and social media sets us up to feel bad about enjoying a well-prepared meal with only one or two people.) But the meal is not the bag of rice.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Rich thoughts, Davin, and thank you for sharing them.
      I admire your optimism (about our moving in a good direction).
      I’m not sure about the Sam’s Club analogy, though. I can find a pretty vast range of information, ranging from bad to excellent, simple to complex.

      • davin says:

        What I mean about Sam’s Club is not so much about the information we haul in (we can pull in huge fields of data), but in the way we dish it out. Maybe McDonald’s is a better analogy. It’s a rare and exceptional instance to find a message can connect effectively with large groups of people without sacrificing integrity or experience resistance. The data points embedded in the argument can be sound. But as the information becomes directed towards a tangible point, the audience becomes narrower (unless, of course, the symbol is abstract: “JUST DO IT!”)…. unless the audience is conditioned to concur with that point in advance of the argument. And, honestly, I don’t know that we need, as a society, so much centralized messaging… except in rare instances (like major disasters). In most cases, politics should be local and decentralized… But, social media offers the hope this distributed model of politics can be organized through a kind of franchise model of discourse. Instead of nourishing our community, we’ve ruined our hearts.

  3. Michael Caulfield says:

    Bryan — have you reread the Washington Post story you cite recently? Glenn turned out to be astoundingly wrong, and the WaPo article pretty accurate.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      What, that Propornot wasn’t running a blacklist after all, from a group lacking transparency? It seems pretty clear that that’s what they did.

  4. Bryan – I’ve been slowly processing this debate for the past few days and have come to an impasse no matter which direction I go:

    How do we teach media literacy when the landscape of such inquiry may lead vulnerable individuals into the rabbit hole of bad ideologies, and perhaps bad actions based on those ideologies?

    How do we reconcile (if that is the proper term) the differences between faith and fact based epistemology so that everyone can come to similarly civil conclusions?

    How do we maintain trust in intermediary institutions if there is a glimmer of bias or untrustworthiness behind them because of these epistemological differences?

    I have failed to come up with a strategy to grappled with any of these questions, and frankly I don’t believe there is one.

    This intellectual struggle reminds me of an axiom I had once read – perhaps in a book by Kurt Vonnegut jr. – that when the Master gives a student a question where any answer the student offers will result in punishment, the proper response is to punch the Master in the nose. The master doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    My distorted version of this axiom with respect to these issues – which I discussed with my 11 year old son this morning as I drove him to Montessori school – is this: Stop asking questions and go play with your friends.

    This is a bit of a nod to Heather Etchevers’ comment in danah boyd’s rebuttal in Medium to her critics. [ ], but I believe it should go further than that.

    My asinine reaction to this issue is saying, in essence, stop asking questions, stop looking things up, stop trying to KNOW what is knowable.

    This goes against every principle we teach our children as parents and as educators. It is wrong. But perhaps what we need to do is educate (and model) a rebalanced set of behaviors of mind that suggest that it is more important to socialize with lots of people than it is to know what is knowable from the information networks that surround us and which are practically embedded into our actual bodies.

    This is NOT a Luddite response in so much as it is a rebuke against the assumption that all information matters. I say that a LOT of information does not matter. Perhaps the question of what to teach children in media literacy is not limited to how to inquire but when.

    • davin says:

      A lot of good things here.

      But I especially like this:
      >My distorted version of this axiom with respect to these issues – which I >discussed with my 11 year old son this morning as I drove him to Montessori >school – is this: Stop asking questions and go play with your friends.

      While this isn’t exactly what I think, I do have to say that a lot of trouble could be avoided if people accepted ambiguity and uncertainty. A habit of thought in the current moment is that everything can be known with a simple Google search… and that anything worth “knowing” can be answered in such a linear way. What’s the answer? Let’s look it up! Here it is!

      Instrumental knowledge is useful for many things. But not for everything. Learning manners doesn’t translate into feeling affection others. Look at all the “charismatic” predators that our society rewards with power over others…..

      There’s a ton of stuff that we can “know” without being able to prove–like that we thought about goats yesterday, that we like certain things, that we value certain relationships, that we are being sincere when we speak, etc. And then there are pretty powerful things that are worth wondering about that we can never know with certainty. Both kinds of information are unreliable from a fact-based perspective, but entirely useful when it comes to thinking about things, doing things you haven’t done yet, wondering at mystery of others, etc.

      This points to two important aspects of human understanding: the value of reflection and the value of imagination. These are very important kinds of information that take us away from certitude and ought to temper our arrogance.

      I don’t think it’s a “luddite” argument to question the limited applicability of engineering to social life. It’s smart.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Great, rich thoughts, Steve and davin. A few responses.

        Expanding our sense of knowledge beyond the instrumental: would doing this involve greater support for the humanities?

        “stop trying to KNOW what is knowable”, “a lot of trouble could be avoided if people accepted ambiguity and uncertainty” – this goes against the Democratic argument that “facts matter” and that the Trump admin is a disaster because it disagrees.

        • Steve Covello says:

          Bryan – My quote was intended facetiously, of course. Yes – democracy requires “knowing”, and facts do matter.

          My argument urges us to be more selective in what is worth knowing. How much of what is posted on The Hill, Politico, or from one’s zealously political Twitter friends is really worth resolving to the point of certainty? Not much, I say.

          Somehow, we have arrived at a point of fetishizing what is known or knowable, no matter how trivial. To suggest that media literacy skills, as boyd describes them, will save us from deceit dismisses the larger issue, in my view, that 90% of the junk online is not worth knowing.

          To davin’s point, that 90% can occupy the realm of ambiguity just fine, as far as I’m concerned. Note: the FTTE report is definitely within the “10%”! 🙂

        • davin says:

          “Facts matter” is an unfortunate slogan. First, propaganda typically relies upon facts, so as a charm it doesn’t guard the user against manipulation. Second, I don’t know of anyone ever using it to change someone’s mind on anything… it is more likely to polarize people. My theory of social change depends upon pro-social interactions.

  5. Tom Haymes says:

    I tend to treat “facts” as background noise. Information in today’s environment is a constant firehose. I learned to manage information overload in grad school and one of the things that that experience taught we was to experience masses of information much like I experience music.

    You usually don’t think of a song as a set of notes played by instruments. That’s certainly true the first few times you hear it. Then you start to notice that really cool bass line or drum riff or you listen to a lyric differently than the first time through. If the song is special and complex you can really deconstruct it and hear it differently over time.

    Information flows in much the same way these day. Individual factoids contribute to the overall symphony and patterns of narrative flows. Patterns swirl, form, and reform. The problem occurs when you latch onto a specific pattern and decide that that is the only way to order your information.

    It’s like the difference between Brittney Spears and Frank Zappa. There is quality music that retains its luster in a timeless fashion and there is ephemeral crap that drifts in and out of consciousness. Sometimes the crap influences the overall tenor of the flow (Zappa, for instance, had a fascination with doo-wop music) but those who are maestros of information who will figure out how to take the crap background noise, use it for what it is, and still produce an overarching narrative that is quality music.

    The problem is that so many people never get past the bubblegum pop and that is what gets surfaced by many social media platforms because it is so prevalent. I think the real question is how do we get people to recognize these hierarchies of quality.

    I like to say that I have an extended liberal arts education and that helps me contextualize things. I also have a very global, connective mindset that cares little about the scandal of the day and much more about the general flow of history (I realize that I’m weird). I also do weird things like relate pop music to “news” stories.

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