Could 2018 be year we make technological education into something better?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

It always seemed odd that we didn’t do IT at my secondary school after year 7 (the first year). We had a rudimentary play around with PhotoShop, made mindmaps and mock web pages – and then it abruptly ceased. The assumption was that we’d pick up the computer skills which we needed along the way.

On the surface, that was largely true: I don’t think that our class was disadvantaged as netizens by the lack of an IT course. And, from glancing at a syllabus for GCSE ICT, we probably didn’t miss out on much: questions about whether text is left or right justified, or knowing the name to a USB, is of limited value (and not just because everything’s on the Cloud now).

But ICT teaching is increasingly more than just about learning the parts of a machine, or even learning to code. Understanding computers and the internet is more than just an academic or abstract skill: it’s practically key to citizenship, and understanding our rights (and how best to safeguard them).

We live in an eminently teachable era for this too: with the onset of GDPR, in just a matter of months, raising a generation to understand the importance of personal privacy is key. Rather than waiting for pupils to be faced with the most unpleasant examples of abuses of trust (in the form of revenge porn), good technological education can directly inculcate wariness about over-sharing online.

The same goes for more complex issues, like algorithms. Granted, Facebook may no longer be the hippest space for youth culture, but its dominance can’t be ignored; nor, in spite of its inability to turn a profit, can Twitter’s. Both of these spaces have algorithms with deeply questionable biases, which allow for the creation of echo chambers – and for deeply unhealthy scrolling habits. A good education wouldn’t tell students not to use these platforms (that would only enhance their counter-cultural appeal): it would instead encourage critical thinking, from an early age. Ignoring the political cycle of defeated parties trying to reach out and become more like their opponents, there is a possibility of avoiding the cognitive dissonance which seems to mark modern politics.

The boons wouldn’t just be for students as consumers – encouraging a better respect for privacy and ethics when it comes to data would also support the companies they might work for or use in the future. Privacy by design is a good idea – in practice. In reality, our current education system rarely prioritises this thinking except in academia or research firms. Having students grappling with these major issues from school could offer a workforce fully committed to the values of good security.

Computing is difficult to understand; the internet is even more so – but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore them, or treat them like a sort of black box, which is inexplicable. By crafting ICT programmes to not merely get across code, but show the power structures and politics behind digital life, we can offer something as valuable as teaching hard sciences, or the humanities, or citizenship – if not more so.

Unequal Web Access isn’t the ‘Third World’s’ Problem

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Considering the many rights which we routinely see trampled upon in the news today, making the case of access to the internet seems a little frivolous. After all, this the era when millenials are pilloried for avocado toast on Instagram, whilst we’re told by a succession of psychologists and journalists that smartphones are destroying the kiddywinks (an idea that, for the record, is less sound than the moral panic behind it would suggest). Sherry Turkle, one of the great pioneers of ethnography online, has become one of the most vocal critics of the digital and its much vaunted murder of conversation/friendship and so on. Amongst her arguments are that by choosing to disconnect from Facebook and the rest of the usual suspects, we can achieve a higher quality of living.

There’s an assumption here that we’re all equally free to log off or ‘jack out’, to use the old cyberpunk expression – that we live in Turkle’s world of digital dualism, in which you and the cursor on the screen are separable. It rather ignores those whose livelihoods rest upon the connection to the internet: think of an Uber driver deciding to up and disconnect one day. Offline me-time – even if it were better than online me-time – is just not a possibility for many. But perhaps even more distressing is the failure to account for those unable to access the internet – not for playing Angry Birds with neighbours or posting holiday snaps, but for the very real reason of accessing work and the resources for self-betterment.

The image of the internet desert, when its mentioned, is usually in the context of the great undifferentiated ‘Global South’. Think of the massive swathes of rural India, where internet penetration still remains very patchy. And yet in Britain and America, these deserts are shockingly prevalent. Nearly 20 million Americans are locked out of broadband, according to a Motherboard piece from a few months ago: equivalent to nearly a third of the British population. Most of them are also in rural areas, worsening the understandable perception that urban elites don’t really care about the country. And in the UK, the same scenario is played out, albeit on a necessarily smaller scale.

The opportunity to participate in a global tech boom, engage in e-commerce and e-payments, or to even just receive the news about events going on outside of a small community are all undeniably valuable parts of the internet – and the opportunity remains unrealised for so many in the ‘developed world’. The US National Broadband Map (which ran until 2014) paints a sobering picture of this reality: outside of major metropolises, large parts of America remain caught in a largely pre-digital era.

And that maps with work done on news deserts, spaces where local (print) papers, unable to scrape together money from advertisers or from subscriptions, have simply had to close down. Some have been bought out by conglomerates like Gannett, a few have banded together at a local level, but many have already died out (and many more are likely to do so). For rural communities losing the traditional lifeline to news in the form of the small town paper, the failure of broadband providers to support them seems a double-whammy. For a populace to be well-educated on complex political issues, it will take more than platitudes and hand-wringing from urban centres.