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March 27, 2012

News & Opinion: Net Smart

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 10:00 PM – Filed under: Innovation & Creativity

Regular readers of this blog know that we're very interested (or at least I'm very interested) in how the internet is changing not only how we socialize, shop, and work, but how we think and function as human beings—individually, culturally, and as a society. Going back to 2007 when Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur went up against David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous, and continuing through last year when Nicholas Carr's The Shallows was released around the time of Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, we've been fortunate that publishers have put out books by great thinkers that take opposing sides of the issue that we can compare and contrast. It always sparks a lively conversation. So, when Jack brought me a book he received from MIT Press today by Howard Rheingold, author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, and Smart Mobs, I was thrilled.
His new book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, doesn't take sides in the debate. It is a book about overall digital literacy and the skills necessary to navigate our increasingly digital world, and he covers a lot of ground—from mastering personal attention to crap detection 101 ("How to Find What you Need to Know, and How to Decide If It's True"), from mastering participatory skills and using collective intelligence to the uses and limitations of social networks and how to use all of this to make you smarter individually, Rheingold has really got it covered. He is also both practical and prophetic (a rare combination) and the book is written for everyone—both in its philosophy and implementation. The philosophy of the book keeps it interesting, the tools he provides keep it immediately relevant and applicable.

First up, as to not scare you away, I'll give you a taste of the practical side:

Who Needs to Read This Book, and Why?

[...]

  • Adults who are Adept at using online tools and networks, but face challenges of time and attention management, and seek a balance between their physical and virtual environments
  • Intelligent but perhaps less knowledgeable and fearful and fearful parents of young people who are going online for the first time, or spending more and more time online
  • Young people who are immersed in the digital "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out" online that is such an important part of youth culture today, but are ready to learn deeper, broader ways of using social media productively and collaboratively
  • People who are old enough to remember the world before it was webbed, and are simultaneously puzzled, attracted, and fearful about new media
  • Businesspeople who want their employees to be net smart with each other inside their enterprise as well as social media literate when dealing with customers—net smarts within enterprises are different from social marketing competencies
  • Educators who want to help students connect old and and new
While we're waiting for research to provide more definitive evidence about what our media practices are really dong to our minds and social relationships, I think we can all benefit from adopting some of the rules of thumb discovered by mindful digital media users.
In that last sentence is the key to the overall philosophy of the book—mindfulness. Rheingold explains how the way we use technology in its infancy shapes the development and implementation of that technology and, therefore, the course of humanity itself. So it's incumbent upon us to use emerging technologies as mindfully as possible.

Pontificating on the present moment and how it fits into the long arch of history, he writes:

I don't believe that technology itself, a fixed human nature, or the powers that be wholly determine who ends up in control and who ends up being controlled by others when a communication medium is adopted. But I recognize that that powers eventually emerge that try to close gates, meter resources, and lock down liberties. I'm enough of an optimist to persist in believing that this hasn't happened quite yet, despite real advances in the direction of control by governments and corporations around the world. Right now (and for a limited time), we who use the Web have an opportunity to wield the architecture of participation to defend our freedom to create and consume digital media according to our own agendas. Or by not acting in our own interests, we can let others shape the future.

If I am correct that informed actions might still influence the outcome, declaring that technology is alone will solve social problems caused by the use of technology is dangerously naive; at the same time, it is dangerously nihilistic to dismiss all the mental and social tools that microchips make possible as irredeemably destructive. People's actions influenced the ways print media shaped the cultural evolution of the past five hundred years. The early users of the telephone insisted on using it to socialize, not as the broadcast medium envisioned by the first telephone companies. Just as people in previous eras appropriated printing presses and telephones in was that the inventors and vendors of the enabling technologies never imagined, the shape of the social, economic, political, and mental infosphere now emerging from the combination of inexpensive computers, mobile communication devices, and global digital networks is not yet fully hardened, and thus can still be influenced by the actions of literate populations. We're in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology.

Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg presses did not immediately enable people to overthrow monarchies, drive the Protestant Reformation, and invent science as a collective enterprise. The interval between the technological advance of print and the social revolutions it triggered was required for literacy to spread. Print, a technology that leverages the power of the human mind by making possible mass distribution of written documents, required decades for the intellectual skill of decoding those printed pages to spread through populations. The sheer scarcity of painstakingly crafted manuscripts (the word manuscript literally means "written by hand") had constrained literacy for thousands of years. Thirty thousand pen-and-ink books existed in Europe in Johannes Gutenberg's lifetime, but more than ten million printed books became available within fifty years of his invention. The sudden abundance of printed material meant that the mental know-how that had been reservedfor elites for millenia abruptly became available to anybody who was able to put in the effort to learn to read. For decades and centuries after Gutenberg, newly literate populations began to learn what to do with the new media of their time, and then they started to foment the Reformation, institute political self-governance, and systematize the discovery of knowledge.

Digital literacies can leverage the Web's architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today's digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyperscale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone's control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other. [...]

When enough people become proficient at these skills, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge. If these literacies do not spread through the population, we could end up drowning ourselves in torrents of misinformation, disinformation, advertising, spam, porn, noise, and trivia.

That may be too black and white, and being a professor, Rheingold probably uses a few more words than he really needs to (check out the length of these excerpts compared to the ones we usually post), but he has a lot to teach us, knows how to do so, and his professorial tangents entertain as they educate. As someone who often struggles getting comfortable with how digital technology and media fits into my life, this is a great read, a welcome resource and an important addition to the growing number of books on my shelf about the internet and the human condition.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.