Garbage in, Garbage out: The need for digital literacy

There was a time when to function in government you needed to be able to quote Greek classics and conjugate Latin verbs. That time may have passed, and been replaced by skills in manipulating polls and delivering sound-bites, but what’s now crucially needed in government and in every other professional field is a new digital literacy.

What made me think of this? Well there’s an excellent article in the New Scientist about the UK’s Home Secretary threatening to ban end-to-end encryption on the basis that there should be “no place for terrorists to hide”. The New Scientist’s view on this is nicely summed up by the fact the original article was headlined ‘Garbage out, garbage in’, but the point they make is that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just underpin messaging apps that can be misused by terrorists, it’s also what makes online banking, shopping, and government websites work.

Banning it would cause chaos. In any case, you cannot legislate the mathematics of encryption out of existence. People would still be able to find ways to securely encrypt their messages.

The wider point, though, is that this sort of thinking shines a spotlight on a deep level of misunderstanding about how our modern world really functions. For too many people in power, and those not in power, the technological marvels which drive our First-World society are magic. There is no real understanding of the mechanisms of science or their day-to-day application.

And if you think that technology is magic, you are entirely at the mercy of the magicians.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone in government should be a scientist – although wouldn’t that be a fun experiment to try for a while – but we do need everyone to have a better understanding of how this world works. And while it’s important for everyone, it’s vitally important for those pulling the levers of our economy and making our laws. They don’t need to be programmers or scientists, but they do need to have at least a high-level understanding of the way things work before they trot out their next sound-bite.

Our politicians really have no excuses because they have advisers who could set them straight if they were interested. Although I do wonder if there is a term for those collectively suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. The only other explanation is that they truly do not care about the underlying truth or practicality of what they are saying.

There’s pretty much no way to achieve significant change in an adult group of politicians, which means that the real issue lies in educating the next generation while they’re still at school. Sadly, right now there’s somewhere between very little and nothing in the compulsory curriculum that’s going to achieve that level of understanding.

Teaching a basic level of understanding may not provide the average person with any more use than being able to quote Greek poets used to. That capacity to quote the Greeks and conjugate Latin wasn’t in itself useful, but it was a marker for what was considered to be a good education at the time. Today’s markers ought to be things like understanding broadly how the internet works or that there’s a difference between a bit and a byte.

Arthur C Clarke’s oft-quoted concept that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ turns on the idea of ‘sufficiently advanced technology’ – in other words technology advanced enough that the person viewing it cannot understand it and so assumes magic. The state of the technology is an absolute, it doesn’t change because of the viewer. The only variable is that the viewer thinks the technology is magic because they don’t have the education to understand what they are seeing. In our world that simply should not apply to basic concepts like encryption or the fundamentals of the Internet.

Image: XKCD

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