Why You Need Digital Know-How –Why We All Need It

By Howard Rheingold

We’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology.


The future of digital culture – yours, mine, and ours – depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyber culture is as impor­tant to us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals. 

The mindful use of digital media doesn’t happen automatically. Thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it instead of going through the motions is fundamental to the defi­nition of mindful, whether you are de­ciding to follow someone on Twitter, shutting the lid of your laptop in class, looking up from your BlackBerry in a meeting, or consciously deciding which links not to click. Although edu­cational institutions have been slow to incorporate digital literacies, practi­cal know-how is available to those who figure out how to find it. This know-how, from the art of growing social capital in virtual communities to the craft of cultivating wiki collaboration, might determine whether life online will drive us to distraction, or augment and broaden our minds. Those who un­derstand the fundamentals of digital participation, online collaboration, in­formational credibility testing, and network awareness will be able to exert more control over their own fates than those who lack this lore.

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Those who understand the fundamentals of digital participation, online collaboration, informational credibility testing, and network awareness will be able to exert more control over their own fates than those who lack this lore.

We who use the Web have an op­portunity to wield the architecture of participation to defend our freedom to create and consume digital media ac­cording to our own agendas. Or by not acting in our own interests, we can let others shape our future.

If I am correct that informed actions might still influence the outcome, de­claring that technology alone will solve social problems caused by the use of technology is dangerously naive; at the same time, it is dangerously nihilistic to dismiss all the mental and social tools that microchips make possible as irre­deemably destructive. People’s actions influenced the ways print media shaped the cultural evolution of the past five hundred years. The early users of the telephone insisted on using it to so­cialize, not as the broadcast medium envisioned by the first telephone com­panies. Just as people in previous eras appropriated printing presses and tele­phones in ways that the inventors and vendors of the enabling technolo­gies never imagined, the shape of the social, economic, political, and mental infosphere now emerging from the com­bination of inexpensive though power­ful computers, mobile communication devices, and global digital networks is not yet fully hardened, and thus can still be influenced by the actions of lit­erate populations. We’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the liter­acies made possible by the technology.

Digital literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills ampli­fied collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most im­portant, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyperscale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone’s control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other.

Five Digital Literacies

I want to introduce you to new know-how (and how to know in new ways) by sharing what I’ve learned about five literacies that are in the process of changing our world: attention, partic­ipation, collaboration, the critical consumption of information (aka “crap detection”), and network smarts. When enough people become proficient at these skills, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge. If these literacies do not spread through the population, we could end up drowning ourselves in torrents of misinformation, disinfor­mation, advertising, spam, porn, noise, and trivia. We need to handle the new flows of knowledge, media, and attention in a healthy, flexible, grounded manner, whether we are older and trying to cope with a world that has changed on us, or just start­ing out in an era in which the rules are still being written. The well-being of sixteen year olds, sixty year olds, start-up compa­nies, and global corporations increasingly depends on the same know-how and how to know.

When enough people become proficient at the five literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, the critical consumption of information (aka “crap detection”), and networks smarts, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge.

Each of the five literacies I discuss is connected to and in many cases undergirds each other. It’s impossible to separate signal from noise without exercising attention, so mindful­ness is a prerequisite to effective crap detection. Similarly, it’s difficult to instigate mass collaboration without network awareness, nor is it easy to participate online without also collaborating. Twitter is a recent example of a social medium that can be a waste of time or multiplier of effort for the person who uses it, depending on how knowledgeable the person is in the three related literacies of attentional discipline, collab­orative know-how, and net savvy. You need to know who to pay attention to when you “follow” other Twitter users, how to participate in the networks of trust and norms of reciproci­ty among Twitter users that make for social capital, and how to craft messages that others will propagate to their own net­works. Attention is a literacy that can thread all the other lit­eracies together and hence is fundamental to the others in several ways, so I’ll start there.

Most people in the world recognize, at some level, that a massive shift is taking place in the way we direct, fail to direct, fragment, or time-share our attention in conversations, class­rooms, and while walking down the street. Many are uneasy about this transformation. Some, like Nicholas Carr in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his book The Shallows, believe we are losing an essential ability to focus and dive deep. The way we communicate today is altering the way people pay attention – which means we need to explore and understand how to train attention now, so that we, not our devices, control the shape of this alteration in the future.

It’s not that multitasking is always bad (except when it is – like when you are driving a car), or continuous partial at­tention (such as surfing the Web while talking on the phone) is always rude and inefficient. It’s that too few have learned and taught to others the skills we need to know if we are to master the use of our attention amid a myriad of choices de­signed to attract us.

Fortunately, learning to gain control over attention is a skill that people have been perfecting for thousands of years, and it can start with something as simple as paying attention to your breathing. After embarking on what should become at least occasional self-examination, it’s time to turn the tool of attention control – however early you might be in your self-training – to the task of finding the information you need at the moment you need it, learning what you need to learn and forgetting what you don’t need, and most important, learning how to filter out the bad info.

Calibrating Your Crap Detector: What You Pay Attention to After You Pay Attention to Attention

The first thing we all need to know about information online is how to detect crap, by which I mean information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate decep­tion. Learning how to make use of huge, unsorted, con­tinually changing flows of information without becoming overwhelmed is partly an application of minimally trained at­tention skills to a simple question in relation to every asser­tion, factual claim, or opinion: How do I know I should trust this information as accurate? The specifics of examining the credibility of information effectively are as simple as looking for an author’s name somewhere on the page in question and submitting it to a search engine, and as complicated as learn­ing to use one’s attention in conjunction with the variety of increasingly powerful automated filters that are becom­ing available. The specific combination of learned attention­al skills and learned information technology know-how is an important new aspect of the digital literacy I call infotention.

When you’re on your way to gaining control of your online attention and have begun to practice crap-detection skills, I turn from “this is your brain on the Internet” to “this is what the Internet enables people to do together.” We need to focus on the skills digital citizens need to master in order to take part in or instigate mass collaboration and in the following para­graphs I introduce the individual and group aspects of partic­ipation and collaboration literacy.

Clueing in to Collaboration: Making Virtual Com­munities, Collective Intelligence, and Knowledge Networks Work for You (and Us)

The Web’s architecture of participation makes new forms of collective action possible, asks some of the superstars of mass collaboration how they work their magic, and lays out what I’ve learned from twenty five years of participation in as well as observation of the online activities now called “social media.”

The power of sociality stems from human not technologi­cal attributes, but tools are created in order to leverage human attributes; any tool that can help humans overcome barriers to cooperation works because it augments an essentially human skill such as persuasion, education, or collaboration. Online social networks can be powerful amplifiers of collective action precisely because of the specific ways they extend the power of human sociality. To be sure, gossip, conflict, slander, fraud, greed, and bigotry are part of human sociality, whether it takes place at the village well or in a virtual world, and those parts of human behavior can be amplified too. But altruism, fun, community, collective action, and curiosity are also parts of human sociality – and I propose that the Web is an existence proof that these capabilities can be artificially extended.

Online social networks can be powerful amplifiers of collective action precisely because of the specific ways they extend the power of human sociality.

The parts of the human brain that evolved most recent­ly, and are connected to what we consider to be our “higher” faculties of reason and forethought, are also essential to social life. This is no accident; it appears that human brains and human social behavior shaped each other’s evolution. The neural information-processing required for recogniz­ing people, remembering their reputations, and learning the rituals that remove boundaries of mistrust and bind groups together, from bands to communities to civilizations, may have been enabled by (and driven the rapid evolution of) the brain structure unique to mammals – the neocortex. Is it any wonder that we’re now designing social technologies?

Collective knowledge gathering was one of the capabil­ities that most excited me when I first wrote about virtual communities in 1987: “If, in my wanderings through infor­mation space, I come across items that don’t interest me but which I know one of my group of online friends appreciate, I send the appropriate friend a pointer to the key datum or discussion.” Now, Entire communities exist for the purposes of knowledge sharing and organization, from social book­marking services such as Diigo.com and Delicious.com, to question-answering forums such as Quora and Formspring. When I recall the days I used an acoustic modem at 110 bits per second to download glorified library catalog entries, the notion of free search engines, free collaboration tools, and voluntary knowledge-building collectives still seems as sci­ence-fictional magical as the hyperspace drive in movies and television shows. They are now indispensable everyday tools for billions of people. Those who know how it’s done, as always, gain an edge.

Meet Jane McGonigal, for one, who creates massive multi­player “alternate reality games” that take place in the physical world as well as cyberspace, involve thousands of people world­wide, and tackle real global-scale problems through playful col­lective intelligence. Or Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, who spends most of his time traveling to the physical hubs of Wikipedia communities, getting to know the people who have used an ultra simple online tool to create a free encyclopedia with millions of entries. Every programmer also knows about Linus Torvalds, who sparked the effort globally to create free and open-source software. These superheroes of cyber collab­oration knew a few simple things that the rest of us can benefit from learning about, such as how to:

Create a variety of ways to contribute and give volunteers attractive roles
Enable self-election where people choose what it is they want to work on
Give participants platforms to work on together for mutual interest
Acknowledge contributors
Make decision making transparent (if not necessarily democratic.)

It’s possible to master the art of controlling attention while you sit alone in a room, but it isn’t possible to partic­ipate, collaborate, or crap detect without taking advantage of both social and technological networks. Understanding how networks work is one of the key survival skills of the twenty-first century.

What You Need to Know about Network Smarts – from Small Worlds to Privacy Settings, from Weak Ties to Social Capital

New knowledge about the nature of networks is essential for getting around in this century because digital data and human communication networks erase barriers and multi­ply possibilities for one of our most powerful capabilities; our sociality.

Now that new kinds of human networks emerge online around mutual interests as well as the traditional communi­ty catalysts of physical proximity or sectarian allegiances, and social activities are mediated through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, new ways to cultivate social capital become available. Ask the people who raised $250,000 from Twitter users in two weeks in 2009 to sponsor clean-water proj­ects in impoverished villages.

Network knowledge derives from a variety of disciplines that had previously not been connected (digital networks and human social behavior), and the skills based on this knowledge include a wide variety of situations. I’ll restrict my focus here to knowledge, wherever it is derived, that can be applied directly to mindful life online today. When you grasp the basics of social network analysis, you’ll know that growing a diverse personal learning network (PLN, as the enthusiasts call it) often is more useful than having a large, homogeneous social network. If you know how others seek to use your digital footprint to market or track, you have the power to protect your privacy and reputation. If you work in an organization, knowledge of the power of “structural holes” that connect networks can help you position yourself as a profitable conduit for good ideas.

None of this knowledge is especially difficult to under­stand or put into practice.

As laptop-carrying, smart-phone-using members of the digitally connected infosphere, we need to start by learning a new discipline: the literacy of attention. As citizens and co­creators of the cultures that shape us, we need participatory media skills. As collaborators in the collective intelligence that faces massive problems from global warming to water-sharing conflicts, we need to learn literacies of cooperation, mass col­laboration, and collective action. As dwellers in the network society, we must understand and master the nature along with use of social networks, technical and human – and grasp the way both mediated and face-to-face social practices can in­crease or drain social capital. And in a world where nobody can trust the authority of any text they find online, the ability to quickly evaluate the validity or bogosity of information is no longer an intellectual nicety. Critical thinking about media practices has become an essential, learnable mental skill.

In a world where nobody can trust the authority of any text they find online, the ability to quickly evaluate the validity or bogosity of information is no longer an intellectual nicety. Critical thinking about media practices has become an essential, learnable mental skill.

My attention – the symbols, sounds, and images I person­ally experience – is the thread that weaves these dimensions into an integral whole. What use to me are fiber optics and network protocols without my attention as well as thought pro­cesses to make sense of all the bits flying around the networks? Attention connects the events that occur simultaneously in the mind, between people, and among technologies. Human thought processes are themselves no more than a part – a kind of focusing lens – of a system that includes neurons, symbols, search engines, social systems, and computational clouds.

*Excerpted from Net Smart, How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, published in March 2012 by The MIT Press. © Howard Rheingold. All rights reserved.

About the author
Howard Rheingold
, an influential writer and thinker on social media, is the author of Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (both published by the MIT Press), and Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. His latest book is Net Smart, How to Thrive Online, published in March 2012 by The MIT Press.


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