Digital media and networks can only empower the people who learn how to use them â€” and pose dangers to those who don't know what they are doing. Yes, it's easy to drift into distraction, fall for misinformation, allow attention to fragment rather than focus, but those mental temptations pose dangers only for the untrained mind. Learning the mental discipline to use thinking tools without losing focus is one of the prices I am glad to pay to gain what the Web has to offer.
Those people who do not gain fundamental literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness are in danger of all the pitfalls critics point out â€” shallowness, credulity, distraction, alienation, addiction. I worry about the billions of people who are gaining access to the Net without the slightest clue about how to find knowledge and verify it for accuracy, how to advocate and participate rather than passively consume, how to discipline and deploy attention in an always-on milieu, how and why to use those privacy protections that remain available in an increasingly intrusive environment.
I have concluded that the realities of my own life as a professional writer â€” if the words didn't go out, the money didn't come in â€” drove me to evolve a set of methods and disciplines. I know that others have mastered far beyond my own practice the mental habits that I've stumbled upon, and I suspect that learning these skills is less difficult than learning long division. I urge researchers and educators to look more systematically where I'm pointing.
When I started out as a freelance writer in the 1970s, my most important tools were a library card, a typewriter, a notebook, and a telephone. In the early 1980s, I became interested in the people at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center who were using computers to edit text without physically cutting, pasting, and retyping pages.
Through PARC I discovered Douglas Engelbart, who had spent the first decade of his career trying to convince somebody, anybody, that using computers to augment human intellect was not a crazy idea. Engelbart set out in the early 1960s to demonstrate that computers could be used to automate low-level cognitive support tasks like cutting, pasting, revising text, and also to enable intellectual tools like the hyperlink that weren't possible with Gutenberg-era technology.
He was convinced that this new way to use computers could lead to "increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble." Important caveats and unpredicted side-effects notwithstanding, Engelbart's forecasts have come to pass in ways that surprised him. What did not surprise him was the importance of both the know-how and how-to-know that unlock the opportunities afforded by augmentation technology.
From the beginning, Engelbart emphasized that the hardware and software created at his Stanford Research Institute laboratory, from the mouse to the hyperlink to the word processor, were part of a system that included "humans, language, artifacts, methodology and training." Long before the Web came along, Engelbart was frustrated that so much progress had been made in the capabilities of the artifacts, but so little study had been devoted to advancing the language, methodology and training â€” the literacies that necessarily accompany the technical capabilities
Attention is the fundamental literacy. Every second I spend online, I make decisions about where to spend my attention. Should I devote any mindshare at all to this comment or that headline? â€” a question I need to answer each time an attractive link catches my eye. Simply becoming aware of the fact that life online requires this kind of decision-making was my first step in learning to tune a fundamental filter on what I allow into my head â€” a filter that is under my control only if I practice controlling it. The second level of decision-making is whether I want to open a tab on my browser because I decided that this item will be worth my time tomorrow. The third decision: do I bookmark this site because I am interested in the subject and might want to reference it at some unspecified future time? Online attention-taming begins with what meditators call "mindfulness" â€” the simple, self-influencing awareness of how attention wanders.
Life online is not solitary. It's social. When I tag and bookmark a Website, a video, an image, I make my decisions visible to others. I take advantage of similar knowledge curation undertaken by others when I start learning a topic by exploring bookmarks, find an image to communicate an idea by searching for a tag. Knowledge sharing and collective action involve collaborative literacies.
Crap detection â€” Hemingway's name for what digital librarians call credibility assessment â€” is another essential literacy. If all schoolchildren could learn one skill before they go online for the first time, I think it should be the ability to find the answer to any question and the skills necessary to determine whether the answer is accurate or not.
Network awareness, from the strength of weak ties and the nature of small-world networks to the power of publics and the how and why of changing Facebook privacy settings, would be the next literacy I would teach, after crap detection. Networks aren't magic, and knowing the principles by which they operate confers power on the knowledgeable. How could people NOT use the Internet in muddled, frazzled, fractured ways when hardly anybody instructs anybody else about how to use the Net salubriously? It is inevitable that people will use the Net in ways that influence how they think and what they think.
It is not inevitable that these influences will be destructive. The health of the online commons will depend on whether more than a tiny minority of Net users become literate Netizens.