THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND
In LIS we have a long tradition of helping users learn to use the tools and resources that we make available to them in whatever institutions in which we work. This tradition has an inherent controversy that we have touched on elsewhere in this course: to what extent should information professionals be teachers?
This question underscores the tension between retrieving information for patrons and helping patrons become increasingly more self-sufficient users of resources themselves. Certainly, these two goals are not mutually exclusive, but they are in tension, and the integration of advanced information technologies into our field exacerbates the existing tension and gives rise to some new ones. The need for determining how to support users in the increasing number of information transactions that do not directly involve our traditional institutions is especially acute.
Our field’s efforts that have been most concerned with helping users become better versed in the use of information resources historically are most often called “bibliographic instruction.” Plainly, that is now an anachronistic misnomer, although it is the most commonly used term. In its stead, the terms “information literacy,” “library instruction,” “digital literacy” (Gilster, 1997), and some of their analogues (<grin>) have gained currency.
Some thoughts on literacy and the digital divide
In one of the texts for the class, Hobart & Schiffman (1998) spend a great deal of time discussing what literacy is and how it has both reflected and contributed to a new, more abstract turn of mind. As indicated in the Study Guide to Part I of the book and in their own discussion, much of their argument is contentious. One element that they barely touch upon is that literacy is not universally desired or admired. Some historians and more critical scholars of literacy remind us that oral cultures and subgroups are effectively undermined or, often, destroyed by the spread of reading and writing. Further, all cultures, even the most literate, depend upon the inherent power of oral structures and traditions. These points are often ignored in LIS and education because of our commitment to reading and the liberating power of literacy. But other approaches provide another take on literacy (Knoblauch & Brannon, 1993). The work of Walter Ong, cited in Hobart & Schiffman (p. 279), is also important to this conflict, especially his Orality and Literacy.
Cultural subgroups and their status in society are of increasing interest to our field and others. One of the particular tropes now current is the so-called digital divide. This concept intends to indicate the chasm, socially, financially, and in other ways, between the information haves and have-nots. The haves are characterized by financial stability, successful social institutions and structures, information skills, technological access, and political resources. The have-nots, in an implicitly patronizing way, are thought to be characterized by deprivation of all kinds, including lack of access to information and, especially, to information technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has produced several very useful reports on the digital divide; the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), especially the station here in Austin, is also quite involved in identifying and addressing areas of inequity in access to IT; and the work of the Digital Divide Network (2000) also may be of interest to you.
At the same time, however, we can tease apart the concept of the digital divide in a number of useful ways that brings the political abstraction of the digital divide to earth for professional practice and political action. Taking just one tack, we can interrogate the presumption that “access,” however defined, is important. Essential questions are left unanswered: what is access that matters to the client? What particular up- and down-stream functions does such useful access require? What are the important barriers to access beyond the usual ones of geography, income, class, and (sometimes) gender? (Doty, forthcoming). We cannot afford to parrot concerns about the digital divide we hear from others. We need to look closely at our own communities, their deficits, and their resources to determine precisely what needs to be done and why, how to address the profound inequities that characterize our society, and the roles that IT might play in doing so. This kind of reflection is an essential part of the information professional’s responsibility and needs to be part of any program of bibliographic instruction or information literacy.
Literacy has been joined with a related concept – numeracy. Paulos (1992) and his other works are the classical references. What Paulos and his supporters claim is that the ability to manipulate, understand, and evaluate numbers (or numeracy) is as important as the ability to manipulate, understand, and evaluate letters (literacy). Washburn (1990) expands numeracy to mean scientific literacy, i.e., the ability to understand, manipulate, and evaluate scientific and technical claims. Further, he says that such numeracy leads to more productive and participatory public policy making. For Washburn, American culture is animated by a false belief that scientific sophistication is the purview of only a few, the elite, the anointed, mostly white, male, professors, scientists, engineers, doctors, and some business people (p. 156). Instead, he offers a vision whereby, just as the printing press made literacy available to the many, the computer will make numeracy available to all. While his optimism is somewhat tempered, his vision is one that offers a fundamental challenge to our field.
In the same collection as Washburn, Kwasnik (1990) offers an expanded model of what literacy means. One of her fundamental arguments is that the concept of literacy is “fluid and changes depending on the historical and social context in which it is considered” (p. 127). She reminds us of one of the major contentions of Hobart & Schiffman (1998): those of us who are literate find it very difficult to identify and understand the meaning and effects of literacy. Her discussion outlines four assertions made about literacy: literacy has been defined as a primary academic skill (the functional literacy of reading and writing in an educational context), as a cognitive and developmental factor (in the expansion of an individual’s intellectual and emotional reach), as embedded in a social context (as a political event and catalyst for liberation and social change), and as an abstract concept (a consciousness of language). Her table contrasting literacy and illiteracy (pp. 132-133) along these four dimensions is quite useful.
Kwasnik’s argument then turns to how computer literacy compares along these four dimensions with literacy (pp. 136-138). In summary, she says that both (general) literacy and computer literacy are “defined as information competence rather than mechanical competence alone” (p. 138, emphasis in the original). Such information competence means the ability to interact in a consequential and engaged way with our environment in a number of ways. From this perspective, being able to read, write, and compute are merely mechanical. “True” literacy is the ability to integrate new knowledge, organize existing knowledge, organize knowledge according to different schemata, recognize the context as well as the analytical components of a problem, and choose, use, and evaluate appropriate tools to address an information need (pp. 141-142).
Kwasnik’s cataloging of information competencies echoes one of the most influential conceptual frameworks in bibliographic instruction: the Big6 Skills of Eisenberg & Berkowitz (1990 and 2000). The Big6 skills are the ability to:
a) Define the task – to define the nature of the information problem and the purpose of any particular information strategy
d) Use information – to apply the information to the defined information need
e) Synthesize – to integrate, structure, and rearticulate the information to address the defined need
f) Evaluate – to determine the success of the process and whether the defined information need was met.
This approach is problem-based, is designed to fit into the context of Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive objectives, and aims toward the development of critical thinking. While the Big6 approach has a great deal of power, it also has serious weaknesses. Chief among these are the fact that users often lack well-formed statements of information needs, as well as the model’s reliance on problem-solving rhetoric. Often, the need for information and its use are situated in circumstances that are not as well-defined, discrete, and monolithic as problems.
Bibliographic instruction (BI) and library instruction (LI)
As noted above, bibliographic instruction is used, despite its limitations, to identify information professionals, especially librarians, as teachers. Such teaching can involve formal and informal lectures, tours and orientations, preparation of exercises either alone or in conjunction with formal classes, online demonstrations, online tutorials, preparation of pathfinders, and other activities. All of these are aimed toward making information users more conscious of their information environments. The American Library Association has a number of committees and other initiatives to support BI, information literacy, and related efforts. One of the most prominent of these organizations is the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Instruction Section. Much of the BI theory, practice, and lore have been developed in post-secondary education, and librarians that serve in such institutions have been leaders in the field, as are librarians that serve in K-12 schools.
Roy (2000) identifies five, non-mutually exclusive ways to structure BI and LI:
As with the Big6, these approaches have to be based as much on an understanding of learning theory as on an understanding of information resources and techniques. Those of you with special interest in helping our clients learn might benefit from our School’s course in Bibliographic Instruction, taught every Spring semester.
There are some superb online resources for support of BI/LI initiatives, and among them are: Internet Library for Librarians (2000a and b), Pastine (1999), and UC-Berkeley Library (2000). On our own campus, the Undergraduate Library at UT-Austin is recognized as a leader in helping its clients develop information literacy skills (2000), while the International Rice Research Institute (1999) is an example of a digital literacy resource for a very specific, but heterogeneous, client group.
In engaging how and why complex information systems frustrate the user, Borgman (2000) has a succinct discussion of usability, an important element in the development of successful digital libraries and technological systems. She mentions several criteria for usability, including that technologies must be easy to learn, error-tolerant, flexible, adaptable, appropriate to the task, and effective (p. 140). A growing number of BI/LI commentators see usability as an important focus of BI, particularly in bringing understanding of the users of information systems in a localized and naturalistic setting to the design and evaluation of systems meant to serve them. A major difficulty with the Web, for example, is that hypertext-based systems often overwhelm the user who must sometimes struggle to identify, if not construct, cognitive signposts to avoid being lost.
Another important theme in BI is how we prepare heterogeneous users for success with heterogeneous information systems. This imperative grows in importance as digital systems become more complex and hard to use and “as the relationship between task and action becomes more abstract” (p. 140). Further, information professionals must support novice users who tend to fail when faced with poor information system design as well as experts who have finely honed strategies for overcoming design flaws. This point underscores the fact that domain experts and technology experts are often not the same persons. Information professionals are expected to be both and to help others become both.
As with literacy as a general concept, there are reasons to denaturalize digital literacy and examine it a bit more closely. Central to such a project is considering how and why people resist technology. It is simplistic and insulting to dismiss such resistance as small-mindedness or fear, and it is incumbent on information professionals as practitioners and scholars to understand and be able to discuss resistance in a substantive way.
Resistance to technologies
Just as we usually do not question the desirability or positive effects of literacy, we have a cultural habit of denigrating those who fail to adopt the latest technologies as “Luddite.” Sale (1995) has rehabilitated and deconstructed this term by a close and critically informed reading of the Luddite movement. One of the most important and earliest points of his book is that, despite our easy assumptions to the contrary, Luddites were not opposed to all forms of technology. Rather, they were adamantly opposed to “’Machinery hurtful to Commonality’” (xi). In other words, the Luddite movement fought the kind of machinery/technology that Balabanian (1993) implicates in his paper: technology that dominates, severs communal ties, erodes modes of life and mores, and destroys the ability of groups to support themselves.
Of particular interest to us are Sale’s final three chapters: Chapter 8 “The Second Industrial Revolution” (pp. 205-236), Chapter 9 “The Neo-Luddites” (pp. 237-259), and Chapter 10 “Lessons from the Luddites” (pp. 261-279). Chapter 8 gives a useful overview of many of the exaggerated and ill-considered claims of commercial IT hyperbole and of digital technology enthusiasts more generally. Such claims tend to intensify the oft-described and –decried characteristics of modernity: specialization, mechanization, centralized control, production, globalized markets, “monetarization of worth,” the valorization of speed and efficiency, and uniformity (pp. 208ff). These characteristics, pace Sale, have fed and been fed by the ability of technology and the technocratic mindset to dominate and pervade all of society.
In Chapter 9, Sale discusses neo-Luddites who, for him, defend human values and relationships against the encroachment of the modern, technological imperative. This discussion leads to his outlining in Chapter 10 of a number of lessons from the Luddites for those who wish to play a countervailing role against technology and its assumptions. Among these are:
For those of you who disagree with these statements, please take a moment to articulate the strengths of the argument – perhaps even to read Sale. For those of you who agree with the statements, consider their weaknesses – in other words, in what ways and to what extent is Sale wrong? That is one of the goals of this course, to ask you to reconsider your preexisting assumptions and attitudes toward technologies and what place, if any, they should have in professional life.
The collection of papers edited by Bauer is based on presentations made at a conference whose goal was to “overcome the technocratic bias according to which resistance is nothing but a nuisance in the technological process” (xiii, Preface, emphasis in the original). Bauer (1995a) makes a useful distinction among the elements of technology to be resisted: hardware, technology’s consequences, and the means by which technology is deployed and used. With IT, Bauer identifies consequences as the object of resistance, ranging from the invasion of privacy to the health risks posed by electronic technologies to misplaced faith in artificial intelligence to political surveillance to the de-skilling of jobs.
Bauer (1995b) focuses the argument on the weaknesses of the concept technophobia, one example among many of our culture’s tendency to “detect symptoms of pathology in people’s experiences of new technologies” (p. 97). Plainly, characterizing people’s behavior as phobic betrays both medicalization of social phenomena and serious disapproval, what Bauer calls the “clinical model of resistance.” He especially warns us of medicalization’s tendency, fulfilling a role similar to that filled by religion, to help control people’s thoughts and behavior.
More generally, Bauer says that his paper is an exploration of the thesis that (p. 99):
the concept of “cyberphobia” epitomizes the clinical eye on resistance to new technology. Besides providing media hype[rbole], the concept prioritizes personal therapy over technological design. It individualizes the problem when the technology requires more adequate (re)design acceding to social and psychological criteria.
Among his fundamental critiques of the concept of technophobia, in addition to its individuating and obfuscating functions noted above, is that such a concept presupposes that deviance is inherently pathological (recalling Foucault’s critique of “normalizing” in Discipline and Punish).
Bauer pursues this point in arguing that resistance and disjunctions between users and systems are “normal events” that are important resources for system designers and producers. Such disjunctions are not simply mistakes by users or bothersome delays to technological development and deployment. Such normal events plainly point out the need for increased attention to aspects of the system, support in situ system evaluation, and help identify how a project might be reconsidered or reconfigured. This line of reasoning, of course, echoes the user-based perspective that we in LIS consider all-important and our reason for being. Bauer concludes that “the focus of analysis is shifted from resistance as an individual deficit to resistance as a social resource. Resistance is the benchmark of local reality to test new technology” (p. 119).
The main theme of Nelkin (1995) is her surprise at the lack of concern with the intrusion of IT into so many aspects of our lives, with threats of social control and loss of privacy (however defined), in contrast to the tempestuous history of biotechnology. Somewhat paradoxically, the quite technical language of IT has become part of our vernacular, and this fact is mutually constitutive with our lack of concern with the intrusive possibilities of IT. More specifically, “[t]o the middle class, the group most often engaged in resistance movements, information technologies appear to be decentralized, comprehensible and controllable” (p. 385). Concerns about privacy, although they are shared by many, have no natural constituencies, especially as we all enjoy the convenience of nation- and world-wide information, credit, and identification systems. While biotechnology is hopelessly (in Nelkin’s view) mired in discussions of risk, threat, and morality, IT seems relatively untouched by these concerns. And that fact puzzles Nelkin.
While much of Bauer (1995c) lies beyond our interest, there are some themes that are germane to our discussion. He reprises the idea that resistance is a strong signal that things are not going well with technologies, in contrast with the technological innovator’s view that resistance is based in individuals’ failures, especially fear and irrationality. Instead, Bauer reminds us that resistance encourages greater communication, thinking, and reflection, pointing to a problem within as well as across organizations.
Neumann (1994) cites Jerry Mander’s 1992 book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Mander provides ten aphorisms about technology that Neumann warns the reader might “appear as Luddite antitechnology” (p. 845). Given the discussion of Sale (1995) above, Neumann’s choice of words might be better. With that said, among the ten aphorisms are the following:
The fact that Neumann’s piece was published in Transactions of the ACM, one of the leading computer technology professional organizations, indicates that LIS is far from the only information field that has serious, evaluative reservations about digital technologies.
While our field has a vibrant and successful tradition of bibliographic instruction, there are a number of questions about the field that persist: How much should we do for clients as opposed to helping them learn how to do things for themselves? What is the “proper” balance between technological faith and technological doubt? How do we help our clients develop a skeptical but informed attitude toward information sources of all kinds? Our colleagues in K-12 and post-secondary librarianship can be of special use to the rest of us in addressing these questions, but, obviously, such questions are never answered once and for all. Instead, they are the stuff of continual professional deliberation and growth.
At the heart of BI related to digital technologies is how to encourage novice and non-users of IT to try the technologies and develop realistic expectations of what the technologies can do, while encouraging expert users to be more skeptical of the power, authority, and effects of the same technologies. In both cases, the information professional is fulfilling a role similar to but different from one we have played for millennia. Precisely how to do so is the essence of one’s professional practice.
Balabanian, Norman. (1993). The neutrality of technology: A critique of assumptions. In John Buschman(Ed.), Critical approaches to information technology in librarianship: Foundations and applications (pp. 15-40). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Bauer, Martin. (1995a). Resistance to new technology and its effects on nuclear power, information technology and biotechnology. In Martin Bauer (Ed.), Resistance to new technology: Nuclear power, information technology, and biotechnology (pp. 1-41). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
_____. (1995b). “Technophobia”: A misleading conception of resistance to new technology. In Martin Bauer (Ed.), Resistance to new technology: Nuclear power, information technology, and biotechnology (pp. 97-122). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
_____. (1995c). Towards a functional analysis of resistance. In Martin Bauer (Ed.), Resistance to new technology: Nuclear power, information technology, and biotechnology (pp. 393-417). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Borgman, Christine L. (2000). From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to information in the networked world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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Doty, Philip. (2000, forthcoming). Policy analysis and the evaluation of networked information: “There are eight million stories . . .” In Charles R. McClure & John Carlo Bertot (Eds.), Evaluating networked information services: Technology, policy, and issues. Medford, NJ: Information Today.
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_____. (2000). The Big6 Skills information problem solving approach. Resources. http://www.big6.com/showarticle.php?id=107
Gilster, Paul. (1997). A primer on digital literacy. Adapted from his book Digital literacy. http://www.rgu.ac.uk/schools/sim/research/netlearn/gilster2.htm
Hobart, Michael E., & Schiffman, Zachary S. (1998). Information ages: Literacy, numeracy, and the computer revolution. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). (1999). Digital literacy for rice scientists. IRRI Online Training Series #1. http://agri-wg.jp.apan.net/IRRI/digitallit/default.htm
Internet Library for Librarians. (2000a). Bibliographic instruction: General Resources. http://www.itcompany.com/inforetriever/inst_gen.htm
_____. (2000b). Library E-mail lists and newsgroups: Bibliographic instruction. http://www.itcompany.com/inforetriever/emailins.htm
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Kwasnik, Barbara H. (1990). Information literacy: Concepts of literacy in a computer age. In Virgil L. P. Blake & Renee Tjoumas (Eds.), Information literacies for the twenty-first century (pp. 127-143). Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co.
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Neumann, Peter G. Risks of technology. In Rob Kling (Ed.), Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices (2nd ed.) (pp. 844-846). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. (Original published 1993)
Pastine, Maureen. (1999). Student learning in an Information Age bibliography. http://www.ala.org/acrl/biblio.html
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Roy, Loriene. (2000). Class manual for bibliographic instruction (BI), LIS 382L.13. Austin, TX: School of Information, University of Texas at Austin.
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UC-Berkeley Library. (2000). Bibliographic instruction resources on the Internet. http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/BIResources.html
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Washburn, Bill H. (1990). Numeracy: An imperative for the information age. In Virgil L. P. Blake & Renee Tjoumas (Eds.), Information literacies for the twenty-first century (pp. 153-159). Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co.
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