By Robert Furtado
In a letter sent from Paris in 1979, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” He didn’t get into the details about where the electorate should get its information, though, and today we also need to consider whether people are properly equipped to make use of the information they find.
Unless you work directly in the tech sector or are an extremely diligent citizen, it may be easy to overlook how information is being used to change the way entire societies are run. This includes the slow evolution of smart cities lead by government, social experiments such as Sidewalk Labs, and the now routine collection of personal data on social media platforms.
These changes all require a “close read” to be well understood, and for citizens to be able to make sound judgments about them. For that, we need digital literacy, which ABC Life Literacy defines as “having the knowledge, skills, and confidence to keep up with changes in technology.”
Digital Literacy at All Levels
It’s true that there are efforts in elementary schools, high schools, and post-secondary institutions to boost digital literacy. This includes the Digital Literacy Exchange program, which is providing dozens of non-profits public funding to help educate groups including children, senior citizens, new immigrants and more.
The impact of technologies like artificial intelligence isn’t something that can be left to the next generation, however. The impact is happening now. We can’t assume everyone in today’s workforce has the digital literacy skills they need, and that if they don’t, that the learning process will happen on its own.
Employers have traditionally seen their roles and responsibilities as limited to training and developing employees to be good at their jobs. That’s why you see companies agreeing to send team members to data science bootcamps or to take machine learning courses so that they can contribute greater value back to their organization and its customers. They might not think of giving training dollars to employees as an act of good citizenship, but it is.
Learning on the job strengthens digital literacy because skills are immediately applicable to specific business problems. When you see how to take advantage of technology at work, it can be easier to understand how it is changing everyday processes in our lives.
This not only makes companies more successful but can make employees feel more fulfilled and that their potential opportunities as productive citizens are growing. Governments that recognize this and partner with industry are already seeing impressive results in this area. According to consulting firm McKinsey, for example, more than 285,000 Singaporeans have taken advantage of an allowance of 500 Singapore dollars to subsidize studies in areas like web development over a two-year period.
Digital Literacy and The Purpose-Driven Brand
The reality is that any business — even those that operate only online — serve customers who live in local communities, and those communities can only improve if everyone attains a level of digital literacy that not only lets them take advantage of technology on the job but assess its implications across different areas of life.
Research from Accenture has shown that 62 percent of customers want companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices. These are all areas where technology plays a role in making information more accessible and actionable — or not.
It may not always be easy to make the connection between having employees take Python courses or UX courses and a stronger democracy. And besides, most of us know how to look things up on the Internet or send text messages. Isn’t that basically digital literacy?
The answer is no. Today, digital literacy means understanding how technology works well enough for you to understand and be able to address critical issues. These include: Is automation always a good thing? What are the acceptable ways to store and handle private information? How can information be manipulated to create confusion, anger or poor decision-making? How does technology exclude certain members of society, intentionally or otherwise? And how can I use technology to better enable myself and those around me? Being able to frame and answer these questions in the context of your work will no doubt make you a better employee — but it will also make you a better citizen.
Companies often say their people are their most important asset, and that they are committed to investing in their success. In doing so they need to recognize that digital literacy is not a once-and-done activity but a process of ongoing learning — one they are well equipped to support. They have financial incentives like the need to maintain a competitive workforce, the tools that show how technology works in specific contexts, and the training dollars to advance digital education broadly (even if they are widely underutilized). No doubt, they could be more intentional in these efforts, and governments should continue to look for ways to support and partner with them.
The result won’t just be better performing employees. We’ll also have a better-informed electorate.