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Digital Literacy in an Age of Exponential ICT Change

By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
How can we raise technological literacy levels to deal with the exponential advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The exponentially accelerating pace of development across a range of fields of science and technology is driving home the importance of raising technological literacy across society and at all levels of education and experience. So, what’s driving the sense of urgency here? While the internet is the familiar overarching narrative when we talk about the digital future, there is much more happening in the field of information and communications technology (ICT).

The innovations that we already know about, such as cloud computing, social media, and big data, are not slowing down; quite the opposite actually, and represent just the start of the story. They are being joined on the technological landscape by a number of other exponentially improving technologies and the concepts they enable. Hence, the expected future is that, pretty soon, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, autonomous vehicles, and smart cities will be commonplace.

Wearable technologies will become implantable, nano-scale, and internal. Meanwhile mankind may surpass both normal life spans and the various natural genetic limitations such as susceptibility to disease. As these innovations evolve, futurists are taking up the often unpopular task of asking whether society wants or needs these changes, how to make decisions about them, and how to prepare everyone for their impact.

Today’s most cutting-edge innovations in ICT are either already progressing exponentially or prone to do so some time soon. The internet, for example, is morphing into the Internet of things (IoT). This is just one manifestation of the approaching wave of exponential scientific and technological change coming in the next few years. To help understand exponential progress, let’s start by thinking about making the normal, linear ascent up a staircase. Now imagine the alternative of leaping exponentially from step 1 to step 2 to step 4 to step 8 to step 16 and upwards—eventually skipping entire floors. The sheer scale of the possible changes means that a solid framework for understanding the potential impacts of these breakthroughs is critical if we are to elevate our culture to a higher level of technological literacy.

Although the concept of “technological literacy” can be ambiguous, and in the face of exponential change, it almost feels inadequate. It is an idea that can be expressed using several different terms and encompasses many different aspects of society’s relationship with technology. A report published in 2000 by the OECD called Basic Skills in Adult Education and Bridging the Digital Divide used the term technological literacy to mean, “the ability to utilise ICT effectively.”

The Colorado Department of Education defines technology literacy as, “the ability to responsibly use appropriate technology to: communicate; solve problems; access, manage, integrate, evaluate, design, and create information to improve learning in all subject areas and acquire lifelong knowledge and skills in the 21st century.”

The highly respected International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) describes digital literacy as a key component of digital citizenship. In the ISTE framework, digital literacy falls under the education category—addressing, “how to learn in a digital society.” Each definition seems to stress the same idea that the skills alone are not enough to constitute effective use of technology; some kind of evaluation or reflection on the appropriate and preferable outcomes of its use is required.

Having rather recently upgraded from chalkboards and books to laptops and tablets, instructional settings are on the front lines of the impact of exponential technological shifts in society. Smartboards, virtual classrooms, email, and online conferencing are just some of the indispensable technologies used every day.

Closer to the cutting-edge, there are now education and training programs that utilize augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in a variety of contexts from teaching 11-year-olds about genetics through to surgical training for medical students. Other such examples include Georgia Tech University running a course with a covert AI teaching assistant, and Teachur, the education start-up trying to put higher education on the blockchain.

Technology in instructional settings is sometimes taken for granted, or viewed instantly as an advantage, but their societal-level impacts are often inadequately evaluated. This is a key area for reflection as we accelerate into our technological future: The act of using ICT subtly implies our consent for its resultant impacts, the scale of which could rise as these shifts accelerate exponentially.

Technological literacy, or some version of it, is rapidly replacing “literacy” as the base skill in society; today, a person who doesn’t use the internet is like someone in the Western world once century ago being unable to read. Take, for example, the smart phone. Today the non-smart phone user is increasingly disadvantaged, marginalized, and possibly viewed suspiciously as antisocial, deviant, or some other type of nonconformist.

Smart phones are valuable for web searching, accessing online applications, texting, social media, email, and (less and less) for phone calls. Few would argue that they do not serve a critical function in day-to-day life. However, they also contain GPS location devices and store mountains of private data about the user, including photos, passwords, and credit card information.

Clearly, no one would argue that smartphones are truly secure or that the data on one’s phone is safe from spying eyes. Yet, how is it that the smart phone has come to possess so much of our identity and life, and signify our place as a functional member of society, i.e. technologically literate in the sense that this is appropriate use of the technology? Now, take for example, a modern person who uses a landline exclusively: Compared to the person who trusts smart phones, which individual is displaying the correct level of technological literacy and secure technology usage?

Perhaps because it is the most familiar, the importance of the internet can obscure other transformative technologies. Scan the pages of this book and it becomes clear that it is not just the digital realm that is changing what it means to be human. Several other parallel technological innovations taking shape right now are contributing to the transformation. Indeed, these reach all the way to life span extension and human enhancement via implantable or wearable devices. So, while ICT is the most obvious and constant reminder of the cascade of technological shifts taking place, it is just one field out of many different science-led domains that are heading down the exponential path.

A higher level of technological literacy would help society take a realistic view of disruptive technologies and allow a more critical appraisal of the claims made by techno-optimists and the likely benefits to society as a whole. Some claim that the risks are overblown and that we should be seeking to accelerate, not dampen, the pace of technological progress. Others argue that these seductive technologies are unfolding in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable manner that could threaten human existence. As with any form of progress, the argument center on a core question: “Just because we can, does it mean we should?”


  • How can we govern technological advancements to ensure they bring social progress and opportunities for all?
  • How could we bridge the technological gap for vulnerable populations like elders and those who live in remote areas?
  • How can we help society as a whole to understand the critical differences between linear and exponential technological and social changes?

This article is excerpted from The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. You can order the book here.


A version of this article was originally published in Multimedia Information and Technology.

Image: by geralt



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