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NYT Explores New Digital Divide in Digital Literacy

From Julius Genachowski to danah boyd, many of the familiar voices in the “digital divide” debate were interviewed for Matt Richtel’s recent New York Times article New ‘Digital Divide’ Seen in Wasting Time Online. (As an aside, I wonder who got the capitalization of boyd’s name wrong: Richtel or a copyeditor of some sort.)

Richtel’s reporting suggests that the new digital divide is in digital literacy. His conclusion is that the lack of guidance for young people on how to use new technologies productively results in them “wasting time online” with social networks and video games.

But is more guidance really the answer? Sure, young people would benefit from additional training in the mechanics of digital literacy, but by answering that question directly we miss the really important thing here…

Richtel’s entire article is based on the assumption that we know how to productively use these new technologies. I find that very hard to believe, especially when we’re talking about a K-12 educational system which at times seems to be more suited for the production of mediocrity and compliance than an engaged citizenry!

If you haven’t read Stop Stealing Dreams, one of the latest books by Seth Godin, you should download it now… It’s FREE, so what are you waiting?

As I remarked on Twitter right after finishing the book, Godin’s enthusiasm amplifies his arguments. His main point is that the American educational system is currently very much an industrial system, meant to produce the constant stream of factory workers the country needed to fuel its rampant growth. The cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and constantly connected nature of 21st century work (at least the work we hope is produced in this great nation) will require a totally different skillset than the one our current system is geared towards producing.

So the question changes from, Is the lack of guidance the reason why these young people are wasting time online? to, Do we even have the right guidance to give them?

The skills acquired by participating in the public sphere and negotiating the complex relationship between identity and anonymity online, whether through Facebook, XBox Live, or chat/text messages, cannot be dismissed at face value. Let’s be real: More than a billion users can’t be wrong. There’s clearly some value to the new modalities of interaction these social networks represent and it will take much more than additional nagging for the real issues of digital literacy to be resolved.

Before we can say that additional guidance is the answer, we need to figure out what we’re guiding young people to. How should we be using the web in our daily lives? What role does social media play in the real world economy? (A billion users might not be wrong, but a billion dollars for a photo app is.) These are the questions I would like to see the Times pursue as they continue their reporting.

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