Humans are tool-makers. Dating back as far back as the Stone Age, our ancestors have invented tools to augment human capacities. The tools we invent not only augment by enabling us to do what was previously unattainable, they also broaden our consciousness by enabling us to imagine new potentialities and possibilities. This is why one way of ordering history is through the tools that emerge during that particular period. Yet, the amplifying effects of tools cut both ways and can be either generative or destructive. Tools magnify both the good and the bad.
With the invention of digital technologies, ours is the digital age. Digital tools are among some of the most powerful tools humanity has ever created. While they may serve to augment the human capacities for knowledge, love and will, they also magnify the state of development of these capacities, making the consequence associated with their absence or inadequacy more ruinous and devastating. For instance, just as digital tools have dramatically enhanced our capacities to seek truth and make discovery, they have also heightened our ability to mislead and spread falsehood. While digital technologies have enabled people to connect and collaborate with others on a scale never experienced before, they could also be used to relentlessly torment and harm. Even as digital technologies have significantly expanded people’s freedom to choose and to create, they are also quickly eroding people’s privacy and giving rise to widespread surveillance that constrains freedom.
Digital tools have enabled people to do more good and harm. Only through education can we harness the positive potentials of digital technologies and avert their dangers. As cyber-culture expert Howard Rheingold has said, “the cutting edge of change has moved the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology.”
Literacy is the development of those aspects of us that make us human. But what does it mean to be human especially in the age of artificial intelligence? One response is suggested by thinker and social entrepreneur Dov Seidman, who says that what makes humans unique are all the things that come from the heart: “humans can love, they can have compassion, they can dream. While humans can act from fear and anger, and be harmful, at their most elevated, they can inspire and be virtuous. And while machines can reliably interoperate, humans, uniquely, can build deep relationships of trust.” Another formulation of our humanity would be an integrative notion of consciousness, comprising of: our ability to know and be aware that we know; our ability to love and be aware that we love; and our ability to choose and be aware of our freedom of choice. Humans are distinguished and elevated by the creative power unleashed by these capacities.
Digital literacy means extending these capacities of knowledge, love and will to contexts involving our interaction with digital technologies. This literacy development approach goes beyond discussing the negative or proposing what ought to be prohibitive as a way of dealing with the dangers and pitfalls of digital technologies. Instead, its emphasis is on cultivating the positive potentiality of every digital citizen to develop the awareness, mindset and practical skills needed to meet the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.
In its training programs, EFDP identifies how these human capacities might be implicated in different digital contexts and explores ways to further their development:
The capacity to know: this capacity allows us to investigate, recognize, understand and communicate what is true. A mature capacity for knowledge is characterized by the spirit of truth-seeking and the willingness to act according to truth. Some examples of related questions in the digital context: Could algorithms be biased? Big data: what are the benefits and dangers of understanding the world through correlation? Do we live in a filter bubble? How and why do hoaxes, untruth and misinformation spread? How are online artifacts preserved? And what does this mean for social institutions such as the library?
The capacity to love: Love is an active force of attraction. The objects of our love are various: some are creative and generative; others are destructive and inhibit our growth. The quality of our love is closely related to the object of our love. A mature capacity for love is characterized by the capacity to create conditions of unity in diversity and is expressed in valuing all life forms. Examples of related questions in the digital context include: How have digital technologies enhanced our ability to share and connect more with others? Could sharing and collaborating ever be bad? Wikipedia expects its contributors to “assume good faith” when interacting with others on the platform, what does this mean? And why is this important? How does an open-source model of collaboration work? What values and assumptions underlie it?
The capacity to will: the capacity to choose is uniquely human. We have the freedom to choose between good and bad, between action and inaction, and to determine the direction and quality of our lives. This capacity allows us to be informed by our intellect and emotional faculties, evaluate different factors in a given situation and choose to override our urges if necessary. A mature use of this will power is characterized by a commitment to act in accordance with fundamental human rights and other universal principles of ethics and truth. Examples of related questions: Have you learnt to code? Do you deliberately disconnect from your screens sometime? How do you choose to represent yourself and engage with others on social media? Do you read the terms and conditions of the online services that you use? Do you actively seek to learn about technological trends and what they mean for individuals and society? Motivated by a preference for freebies, we pay no money to use many online platforms, but are these services free? How much are we willing to pay if these services charge a fee?