We shape our software; thereafter our software shapes us

It often seems that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what computers can do. This has in large part to do with the low rate of computer fluency. Historically this probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, after all, we haven’t been using computers for very long. Probably the most apt technological parallel to the advent of personal computers in the 20th century is that of the printing press half a millennium before.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanised printing press in the middle of the 15th century is oft heralded as the event that brought an end to the scarcity of written material that had kept reading an elite pursuit in Europe1. And it was, but it took a long time. Thirty five years later, in 1475, literacy in what is now the United Kingdom was a paltry 5%. It wasn’t until the middle of the 17th century that literacy reached 50% but there it would stay for the greater part of 200 years! Between 1820 and 1870 reading hit its stride again in the UK, due in no small part to the influence of Charles Dickens, and by 1900 97% of the populace could read and write.

So in the seat of the largest, richest empire in human history, it took more than 200 hundred years post-press for the majority of it’s people to become literate — ignoring the fact that what qualified as literate in 1800 probably would not today2 — and it would be the greater part of half a millennium before all us plebs could read magazines and scrawl our own drivel without the help of the local wordsmith.

But all of this talk of literacy is simply a prelude to that of fluency. Literacy, while an essential and necessary precursor to fluency, is a mere plateau on the road to the sort of proficiency that we (society) might aspire to. Fluency builds on literacy by supporting thought and creativity. Clint Lalonde explores this (emphasis mine):

[…] being digitally literate and being digitally fluent are different things. Digital fluency is a much more holistic term than digital literacy. While many definitions of digital literacy focus on the development of basic digital skills and competencies, digital fluency goes further. It focuses on the metacognitive skills required to transfer those digital skills from one technology to another, and to make sound, nuanced decisions about technology use.

I see the difference between literacy and fluency as a continuum. Literacy is a pause on the way to fluency, although an important one, because you cannot become fluent until you become literate. But literacy shouldn’t be the end-game for those of us who support technology-enabled teaching and learning practice.
— Clint Lalonde, Connections, Issue #111, Schools Catalogue Information Service, 2019

Lalonde references Jennifer Sparrow who distinguishes literacy and fluency more simply and succinctly with a metaphor:

In learning a foreign language, a literate person can read, speak, and listen for understanding in the new language. A fluent person can create something in the language: a story, a poem, a play, or a conversation. Similarly, digital literacy is an understanding of how to use the tools; digital fluency is the ability to create something new with those tools.
— Jennifer Sparrow, Digital Fluency: Preparing Students to Create Big, Bold Problems, 2018

I would take that further and liken literacy to memory and fluency to involvement in the ‘tell me, teach me, involve me’ hierarchy of pedagogies. It is this lack of digital fluency, and consequent lack of involvement and participation from the full patchwork of human potential, that hinders the potential of our existing user/computer interactions.

Much of the history and advancement of computers and their software has been, necessarily, at the hands of engineers and they have given us some good primitives, workable building blocks, but the next 500 years of computing will, I hope, be defined by the creativity of increasingly fluent users and their rearrangement, reimagining, and even rejection of those primitives. Fluent users are still over-concentrated in the field of computing itself. If we’re going to unlock the connective and creative potential of these tools, tap into the minds and imaginations of the ‘non-engineering class’, and realise the latent potential still trapped in the siloed fields that have not yet reached a critical mass of digital fluency, we need to find ways to unyoke users from these limitations.

This starts with respecting users. Too often our instinct is to fault non-literate and non-fluent users for their ignorance, when in fact the limits of their literacy may have more to do with the constraints of our primitives. By acknowledging that our primitives may in fact be primitive — insufficient to express the diversity of perspectives and thinking structures any heterogeneous population has to offer — we can perhaps begin to chip away at the entrenched edges of our current tools and models.

I am very optimistic about the ultimate future I outline above, but recognise that between us and that future lies quite a formidable causality dilemma. The classic causal dilemma is that of the chicken and the egg, here our dilemma is the tension between the program and the user. How can we create primitives and build programs and models for users who are not in a position to create their own primitives (ie, are not programmers/computer scientists themselves) without limiting them to the scope of a programmers imagination? How can users escape the limits of the primitives they are subject to?

While steady progress has been made on this front as the tendrils of computing reach ever more diverse users, more can be done to overcome the biases that exist, if not at the root, then in the dominant branches of programming. More can be done to bridge domains and support the creation of useful ontologies in fields and faculties that have not enjoyed such riches as computer science has provided for itself.

Many are still limited by the interfaces and paradigms of computing we have so far conceived, and as computing reaches further into our lives, and further out across the world, many more will suffer these limits. The digital revolution has revealed its profound potential as a force multiplier for human thought, allowing us to connect people and ideas with an efficiency and scale that fills me with wonder, but there is much more that can be achieved if we can recapture the notion that computers should be suited to our needs — rather than persisting with the obstructive narrative that people ought to adapt themselves to suit computers — and much that will be lost if we do not.

  1. I say in Europe because moveable type printing had already been in use in China for almost 400 years before Gutenberg was even born. (Needham, Joseph (1994). The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 4. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780521329958)↩︎︎

  2. And of course, literacy is not — or at least should not be — a binary measure, it is a continuum, and we have become complacent and inattentive to our (collective) advancement along that continuum. In the UK today, despite literacy being greater than 99%, 16.4% of adults (7.1 million people) are thought to be functionally illiterate, wherein they experience significant challenges in their day to day life due to their poor literacy (National Literacy Trust)↩︎︎