An initial version of this post was originally published on HASTAC 10/22/2012.
I’d like to thank my colleague Melonie Fullick for the conversation that led to this post.
As a researcher interested in the digital humanities and as a blogger, editor and academic blogging and social media workshop facilitator, I have observed different shades of digital literacy levels. I have witnessed it not between groups from different countries, disciplines or institutions, but within self-contained groups or communities that are often assumed to have the same skill sets or more or less similar degrees of access to infrastructure, financial means, education, and connectivity amongst others since these groups’ members belong to the same organisation, faculty or department. That members of the same organisation should not be assumed to necessarily have the same digital skills or level of access to said skills, education or resources is precisely one of the motivations for this post.
At the time of writing this, the current “Global Digital Divide” Wikipedia entry reads:
“The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.
This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.”
In this case, I would like to suggest there are other types of digital divides that are not necessarily between those with access and those without. As Howard Besser pointed out,
“Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”
Besser is right to point out that “The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.” Nevertheless, the other types of digital divides I have been thinking about take place within those who can be both active creators and distributors of information, as well as consumers of that information.
The group I am talking about is graduate students, postdocs and academic staff in higher education institutions, and specifically within the arts and humanities and in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The sometimes exceedingly high standard expected from candidates as specifically detailed in some digital humanities job descriptions announces a new digital divide, between those who can build the digital platforms and those who would only consume them. Importantly, it may also announce a time in which there might only be funding available for large institutional projects that already involve a great deal of infrastructural support and, very importantly, qualified human resources with advanced levels of humanities resource building –as in coding– and not for those that “only” involve advanced levels of engagement –as in, interpretation and teaching– with those humanities resources.
But there are various shades of complexity before we even get to that divide between those who “build” and those who don’t. New digital divides created by the great diversity of digital skill sets amongst most arts and humanities scholars. The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term “digital humanities”) has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective “digital’ will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. As an educated guess one might be able to generalise that many if not most humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills often acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula.
The job descriptions out there seem to tell a different story. It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks and quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics and altmetrics. This prototype scholar seems to be some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.
On the other hand, we have what I think is a more immediate scenario, that of the scholar (please humour me for the sake of argument) who mainly communicates over emails and listservs, who, say, struggles to save a PDF, only recently figured out what a hashtag is and has never used a shared Google Drive document. This scholar knows her/his stuff very well indeed, hates Microsoft, resents having to use a Moodle or PowerPoint (or absolutely loves them), but is not really comfortable with this whole Web 2.0, scholarship-in-the-cloud malarkey.
There’s also an in-between group if you wish, confirmed by scholars who are very fluent (or think of themselves as very fluent) in off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, they blog, share what they do, keep track of who reads them and engages with them, who might know what a MOOC is and might even have facilitated or participated in one, who know what tags and attributes are, who learned what they know in different ways, who may know a lot or who may struggle with some aspects of it but just about manage to get along.
And, of course, there’s always those who will belong to all of the above, to just a couple of them or to neither of them, or any other combination you can possibly imagine. The thing is, all these categories are destined to be caricaturesque generalisations, precisely because there are so many shades of fluency and engagement with technical digital skills, expertise and tools.
Therefore these new digital “disparities” in digital fluency are not necessarily about access (or privilege, or wealth, or technology, or connectivity, or language, etc.) as it used to be discussed (between the rich and the poor, the north and the south) but about actual varying degrees of skills within the same groups. These disparities have allowed a technically savvy elite to sometimes get hold of a position that depends on a big group not possessing the skills they have, so rarely there are situations in which they are encouraged to teach others. Sometimes those others will not think they have anything to learn, or will resent being told that perhaps it would be a good idea to sit down and learn how to do something. Sometimes those others wish they had the institutional support to count with the time and space and access to training necessary to acquire new digital skills, no matter how “basic” or “advanced” they may seem to others.
Moreover there is the assumption that commercial off-the-shelf web services are simply picked up by intuition and trial and error. This is true in some cases. It’s come to the point though in which the web is not something that only interests technically-minded people, but the platform on which and with which, for better or worse, a great percentage of human communication is increasingly taking place, and as such it is worth considering if it would not be a good idea to stop taking for granted that academics (of any age) do not need structured learning opportunities to master the nuances of the web (in this case not as coders, but as skilled users). Perhaps tool-based learning is doomed to failure as these are likely to change or disappear, but core critical and practical skills applicable to a wide variety of web tool scenarios would be a great thing to have a structured, recognised framework for.
Arguably, as web platforms become the mainstream rather than the underground, not only do those platforms become more complex: their users also cannot be expected to always-already have a great degree of proficiency in their management or use. (It can be argued that unlike mainstream scenarios, underground scenes are more or used to be more likely to engage in Do It Yourself and self-taught activities and processes). For instance, some knowledge that some social media users might take for granted, such as logging in, updating profiles, uploading files, making hyperlinks, etc. might be unknown to even the most apparently prolific of social media users, as sometimes things happen “as if by magic” without users necessarily understanding the processes behind them or without being able to replicate them when contexts or circumstances change. We must stop taking these skills for granted, and reconsider how we might be contributing to new digital divides amongst groups of peers by assuming everyone has (or even should have!) the same digital skill sets, when perhaps they don’t.
These are just some quick notes seeking to suggest that before all arts and humanities scholars become that mutant 21st century super-powered being we need to first recognise the existence of the great diversity of levels of digital literacy, and second that academia needs to figure out how to ensure that, for example, everyone feels comfortable using a search engine before asking them to code one from scratch.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed