In early March 2017, the UK Government published its long-awaited Digital Strategy. As set out in the foreword by Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Strategy’s ambition is to to “create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. The reference to the economy is not insignificant: the document as a whole is framed largely in terms of how digital factors enhance UK industry and competitiveness, with much less emphasis on the positive impacts on society more broadly. Indeed, at the risk of making a glib point, I counted 82 occurrences of the term ‘economy’ in the text; ‘society’, on the other hand, appears only 9 times.
This is not to say that the Strategy is worthless, far from it. Clearly, it is important to address the ways in which the digital economy contributes to national well-being, and the contribution that digital know-how makes to prosperity. The report rightly stresses the strategic goal of ensuring that businesses and the public sector develop an efficient digital offer, to help serve the needs of their customers and users, and to improve their own efficiency. But the challenges of digital are so much greater. I’m disappointed that the Strategy says so little about what the digital realm means for democracy, citizenship, learning other than in employment contexts, health, personal well-being… and culture (easy to forget that this was published by DCMS, the Department that covers culture!).
Of particular interest to me is the section of the Strategy that relates to skills and inclusion, where the relationship with information literacy is closest. Here too, there is much emphasis on the needs of the digital economy and workforce. And to its credit, the document outlines the important work undertaken in the UK to address digital inclusion, and the role that public libraries play in that endeavour. But again, that’s a narrow interpretation of digital skills. How odd that, in a world of fake news, ‘post-truth’ and the alarming spread of misinformation, the Strategy completely fails to address the imperative of equipping people with the ability, competence and confidence to navigate their way through the daily jungle of online information, much of it of dubious quality; and crucially of fostering among individuals the discernment and critical faculties that they sorely require to make sense of the information that they pick up and share online. This is about the health of democracy and inclusive, open society – not just about the economy. Why is the Strategy silent on such a burning concern?
When making this argument, I like to quote the views put forward by Ofcom, the UK’s independent media regulator. In a perceptive submission to a parliamentary inquiry in 2016, it stated that “basic digital skills will be limited in the benefit they can bring, unless they are underpinned by strong critical understanding skills. Increasing these skills will increase digital confidence and competence, and has the double advantage of reducing the risk of the negative online experiences and increasing engagement with and creation of new online opportunities”. This is succinctly and eloquently put from the public body responsible for media standards. Could DCMS not take a leaf out of Ofcom’s book? The Strategy’s approach to digital skills does indeed focus on those parts of the population who are digitally-excluded. Yes, that is hugely important – but digital skills should go beyond that, and should stretch to the sort of more advanced competencies that are needed not just to learn the basics of online activity, but also to reflect on the variable quality and reliability of the information environment that surrounds us all.
The Strategy errs by placing too much emphasis on skills that are essentially technical, to the detriment of encouraging people to acquire a better understanding of the information that the technology enables. Throughout the document’s skills and inclusion chapter, there are ample references that equate digital skills with ICT skills – for instance, learning about coding in schools, and about technological platforms in the workplace – which over-stress the ‘T’ in ICT, whilst rather forgetting about the ‘I’ (and after all, even in workplaces, let alone in wider society, the intelligent discovery, handling and interpretation of information are vital for success). This is a point that InformAll had previously made in its response to the House of Lords report into the UK digital future; that report too tended to confuse digital and ICT skills; sadly, our response was ignored.
It is a great pity that the UK’s national Digital Strategy, which has taken so long to finally emerge, should have such a blind spot. What will it take to make public policy receptive to the importance of information literacy, and to the close relationship that it bears to any digital policy worthy of the name?
Photo: the Thames by the London Eye – Stéphane Goldstein – CC BY-ND 2.0