Category: Blog

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.

Work to increase particular digital skills is all 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 this 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 the 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 by the same technology literacy that I image every citizen of Estonia to have, liberated to take advantage of the possibilities of the digital revolution.

Recipes

Mum kept several of these recipe books.

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She had shelves of cookery books too, but these are the ones I remember her actually using.

Inside there are pages and pages of recipes, splattered with margarine and sugar. Some are hand written, some are cut from magazines. They describe the food of my childhood, and every family occasion since: Betty’s pudding, battenburg, ginger squares.

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The contents page is adjusted to reflect the types of recipe included. Additional space is given to “cakes and biscuits”, “Chinese and vegetarian” and “more cakes”.

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Reboot

It’s 4 months now since I left my job. I said in my valedictory work blog that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, and that is still true. I haven’t felt any urge to rush back into an office. I’ve had little difficulty occupying myself with other things.

It’s been an odd period. I’ve struggled to name it. I was calling it a sabbatical, or a career break. But neither is quite right.

When I’ve told people that I’m not working some have been envious, but some have offered pity, as if I’d actually rather be employed (I wouldn’t), or am in the midst of a breakdown (I’m not). My situation is not sustainable indefinitely of course, but I’ve been enjoying not working.

More recently I’ve started to think about this period as delayed paternity leave, which feels more accurate to how I’m spending my days. More Swedish.

With more time available to me each day, I have occasionally felt guilty that I’ve not been using it more productively, that I’ve not made more progress on the grand plan.

But I have ticked off several little things I’ve been half meaning to do for years. And I’ve spent time with my dad, I’ve hung doors, and climbed a mountain. I’ve also had lots to divert me, like the Champions Trophy and the Women’s World Cup, and The West Wing Weekly, and elections.

I’ve spent no time at all thinking about the manoeuvring and politics of office life. I really haven’t missed any of that. But I have spent a lot of time thinking about the things I was trying to achieve through my work. A bit of distance is probably giving me some useful fresh perspective on all that.

When I stopped working I unsubscribed from a bunch of RSS feeds and withdrew from some conversations, adjusting who and what I was paying attention to. I felt the need to clear the cache and reboot. The other day I quietly turned on an IFTTT applet, connecting my favourited Pocket articles to my dormant Twitter account.

Tribute

I used to tease Mum about her Walsall accent. Most of the time you couldn’t actually detect it, but it was definitely there – when she was excited or anxious, or when she used certain words: kettle, arboretum, pikelets. She didn’t get annoyed (I was definitely annoying). In fact, she never really got annoyed with me. Or at least if she did she hid it well.

I’ve been looking through a lot of old photographs with Alison and Dad. My favourite is one of Mum running at a sports day, aged 9. On the back, in her handwriting it says “I won this race”.

A couple of things struck me as I looked through the photographs. Firstly, that it was harder than I expected to find photographs in which Mum is the focus of attention. I think that Mum was generally more comfortable when she wasn’t the centre of attention.

The other thing that struck me as I looked through the photographs was how much of Mum’s life she spent doing things that she absolutely loved doing, and became expert at. There are photographs of her dancing, and teaching, and in her garden, and with her family. She did things that she really loved doing a lot, and I think that made her happy.

Mum was ill for a long time. She knew exactly what was happening, she was sometimes in pain, and towards the end she was definitely frustrated that her body wouldn’t allow her to do the things that she wanted to do. But she was determined to keep going.

So in December she came down to London for Stanley’s birthday, even though she probably wasn’t well enough to. She wanted a normal family Christmas, and she sat at the head of the table as usual with her family around her, and I know that she loved that. And she carried on dancing until it was no longer physically possible.

She didn’t really talk to me about dying. We always had something more interesting or urgent to talk about. But the last time I saw her she did tell me that I should look after Dad. Her actual words were “you should make sure Dad has enough cricket matches to go to” but I knew what she meant.

One of the things we were able to do with Mum in the last few years was to go on short holidays, mostly to places of her choosing. We never went for very long, and sometimes Mum would have to pause the holiday half way through to travel to London to get treatment at the Marsden. But she would come back the next day and just carry on.

One of the photographs I picked out is from one of those holidays. It shows Mum sat on a rock, on a beach, on Holy Isle, waiting for a boat to take her back to Arran. The sun is shining, and we’d just walked the length of the island and back. Mum is doing something that she loved doing, and she is happy. And that’s how I’m choosing to remember her.