One of the most interesting stories I’ve read lately was about a refrigerator. “Here’s an odd one,” it started. “My brother who I live with sold his fridge today.
We don’t share a laptop or phone access, so why was I then linked to an eBay ad selling fridges? How do they know my house is one fridge light?”
This story came from a young man in Leeds, a participant in an online community run by my charity Doteveryone. He’s not the only one worried about being spied on; from the BBC to Reddit, the Internet is full of stories about strangely prescient adverts.
The interesting thing about anecdotes like these isn’t that they happened. It’s that they almost certainly didn’t. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have all categorically denied recording more than we’ve authorised them to; there’s simply no evidence that anyone’s using our conversations to sell us fridges, or shoes, or cakes, or anything. But in a world of complicated, inscrutable tech, the path of least resistance is to assume we’re part of a digital panopticon and grimly move on.
It is somehow still socially acceptable to say we don’t understand the changes that are being brought into our lives by technology, as though tech is some kind of niche topic that only specialists need bother themselves with. But it isn’t niche – we are people living in a digital age, and it is incumbent upon us to understand what that means for us.
Getting online is just the first step. A sense of how the Internet works, an awareness of its power structures, and an ability to question its impact on our lives requires more than digital skills. It requires digital understanding. And as we leave the protections of the European Commission and Silicon Valley vies to control even more of our lives, building this understanding will be critical.
Nearly all UK Internet users have the digital skills to use a search engine. But only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts. Around two-thirds of our digitally skilled population can shop and bank online – but a third don’t make any checks before entering their personal or financial information online. More than 1.4 million of us work in tech-related jobs – but hardly anyone is wondering why there are now twice as many new tech companies in the UK as there were before Brexit. The list goes on.
Digital understanding is important for us as individuals, but it is especially critical for our nation’s leaders. The reason why is simple: people in positions of power make decisions that affect the rest of us. When school governors can’t tell good classroom tech from bad, they waste precious funds on useless gadgets. When heads of hospital trusts can’t plan for cybersecurity threats, they put systems and patients at risk. When MPs don’t understand encryption, they call for “back doors” that would leave all of us vulnerable. These outcomes are both unacceptable and completely avoidable.
So what’s the solution? The first step is, as they say, recognising we have a problem: we can no longer indulge our desire to ignore tech’s impact on our lives. Just as we did with basic digital skills, we need to decide on the fundamentals of digital understanding and then find ways to build that understanding amongst ourselves and our neighbours.
Doteveryone is currently developing a framework and a progression path for digital understanding, one that reflects the different contexts in which people interact with the Internet. Withthis tool, we’ll be able to gauge how we interact with the Internet as individuals, as consumers, as workers, and as members of society – and see practical next steps on how to grow.
But growing will be a different and more complicated challenge than getting online. For starters, digital skills are tangible and teachable: download this app, program this device. They also reinforce the idea that digital is something we do – time-bound and transactional. But in a world where we spend more time online than we do asleep and where everything from our televisions to our kettles can connect to the Internet, digital is something we are. Understanding is not a race to be run and won. It is a lifelong process of learning, one unique to each of us.
Additionally, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, building digital understanding will require us to turn the lens back on ourselves. Rightly or not, “the kind of people” without digital skills tend to seem suitably “other”: the poor, the elderly, the socially or geographically isolated. But no matter how well connected or savvy we feel, the truth is that few of us actually know how tech affects our lives. (And why would we? The world’s big tech companies have no financial incentive to make sure we understand their products and services. In fact, they’d probably prefer we didn’t ask questions at all.) Difficult or not, this work must be done – and it must be done now. Currently, most of the people who genuinely understand our digital world are in the business of making profit. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – but capitalism isn’t the same thing as democracy, and we can’t rely on companies to save us.
There is no shame in not understanding how technology works, or how it affects us. But there is in plugging our ears and hoping the whole problem goes away. Right now in my pocket is a small glass box that can access my family photos, my business dealings, my credit cards, and my medical details. There is almost certainly one in your pocket, too. Shouldn’t we learn more about where it came from? Shouldn’t we know for sure if it’s listening to us? There is so much I don’t know about technology, even after 20 years in this industry. But I am not afraid to learn. We need to be able to shape our digital world as much as it shapes us – and that starts with digital understanding.