What you need to know to be technology literate (or how we could all be more Estonian)

In my filter bubble at least, everyone seems to be talking about a lack of digital skills. It’s a problem: a lack of skills is holding back organisations, inhibiting the progress of the state, and posing a major risk to productivity in the UK.

And it’s not just talk. People are doing something about it. There are loads of initiatives to address the problem.

Some are involved in work to address the lack of specialist skills needed to lead and deliver digital services and products. Often this is about recruiting and training service designers, developers, user experience designers and the like. The work usually looks to California for inspiration in an effort to emulate the working practices of the most successful businesses of the last 20 years. It tends to be led by people with an evangeligal zeal for particular methods, and an associated lack of sympathy for alternative ways to get things done. The Government Digital Service Academy is an example of this type of capability building.

Some are involved in work to address the broader absence of digital skills amongst the users of digital services. This is a very different problem to attempt to address, with work often targeted at potentially excluded groups, including older, poorer or iller people. There are plenty of worthy initiatives in this category, like Digital Eagles or the Good Things Foundation. I’ve wondered in the past how much of my involvement in this type of work has been well intentioned but ultimately futile.

Some are involved in work to drive up skills for engagement, communications or marketing. For example by adapting skills for new or emerging media. This tends to be quite practical: how to create content for social channels, how to derive insight from new sources of data, how to participate appropriately online. Without these types of skills, it’s becoming difficult to imagine how a modern professional is able to retain a job. The Digital Action Plan includes some of this type of capability building.

All of this work to increase particular digital skills is necessary no doubt, and much of what I’ve described above it is providing excellent results.

But in my experience, there remains an underlying widespread and chronic lack of confidence around technology just about everywhere I look. Day to day I see this manifested as a lack of confidence people have when talking about technology: people change the subject, avoid terminology they’re unsure about, or defer to younger, hipper types when the conversation gets too techy.

I’ve often encountered it in people who haven’t acknowledged that technology has changed (and will keep on changing) the world around them, including the things that they are responsible for. They haven’t been able to fully adapt as everything around them has changed.

But I don’t think this is just a problem amongst the technophobic or the excluded. I’ve met plenty of people who work in roles that require a command of some technology, who display a similar incomprehension of technology in other areas: IT people with a blind spot for internet culture, communications professionals with no understanding of service design, designers with no interest in the back end.

And I’ve found it to be most frustrating when I’ve observed this lack of confidence in senior people who have ended up (because of their seniority rather than their expertise) responsible for big decisions about technology. It can be incredibly limiting when an absence of broad technology literacy and a lack of digital confidence amongst senior people means that they are unable or unwilling to have informed conversations about technology. This was at least part of the story of the initial failure of healthcare.gov.

Most people of working age today won’t have grown up with the internet, their school curriculum won’t have covered the internet revolution, and they won’t have retrained since. They may be avid users of social media, and they may have picked up specific bits of knowledge along the way, but they probably lack the broad understanding of technology that would give them the kind of digital confidence needed to operate without the fear of being found out.

But what kind of knowledge would people need to address this, and be confident in their technology literacy? If I was designing a curriculum to teach this stuff, it would probably cover the basics in:

  • the context for the internet, being able to answer questions like: what actually is the internet? what are the significant technologies and milestones in its development? what are the limits to these technologies? what have been the significant trends in the development of technology?
  • how digital services are changing how we get things done, covering things like: the new types of service of the internet era, the disruption to existing ways to get things done, the principles of human computer interaction and user centred design, the implications of raised expectations of service users, the big things that set apart the most successful businesses of internet era
  • the emergence and influence of internet culture, covering things like: the psychology of internet users, the wisdom of crowds, how participative media has changed how people collaborate, form communities and take action together
  • new and emergent technologies, covering the basics in things like: data and automated analysis, behavioural insight, artificial intelligence, and automation

How does that sound? It might be a dream, but imagine the possibilities if we all knew this stuff, and knew that others knew it too, with everyone empowered and liberated by the same technology literacy that I (probably erroneously) image every citizen of Estonia to have.