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Thoughts on digital citizenship models

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Some of our public education efforts at the OPC focus on talking to young people about online privacy. How they face the challenges of controlling their information online and protecting their privacy is an important skill to surviving – and thriving- in a digital environment. Increasingly, we see it as part of a suite of skills necessary for digital citizenship.

Through our presentations to young people, their teachers and parents, we’ve gained some wonderful insight into how kids use these tools to not only connect and share with other people, but also restrict access to their information and manage their identities online. We’re also learning a lot about what they already know, what they’d like to know, and what they don’t care to know when it comes to online privacy. These firsthand observations, paired with a growing body of work done by researchers like Valerie Steeves, danah boyd, Sara Grimes, the Pew Research Center and others, are helping us shape our public education and outreach efforts for young people.

Recently at the annual International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, danah boyd gave a talk entitled “The Future of Privacy: How Social Norms Can Inform Regulation”.  The entire talk is worth reading for her observations on how young Americans navigate the public/private divide in ingenious ways.  But among the things that struck me most, was this:

Participation in a networked era means that people are exposed in entirely new ways.  Interactions are increasingly public-by-default, private-through-effort.  People will make an effort to keep personal and intimate information private so as to not be embarrassed or vulnerable in front of people that they care about.  But we are not yet at a point where people have any model for thinking through what an algorithmic society looks like.  People don't know how data about them and their interactions with others is being used to build data portraits.  They don't know how algorithms are judging them.

How is our data collected? How are algorithms swallowing up this information and spitting out fairly accurate profiles of ourselves? These are some of the questions we need to be able to answer in order to fully navigate that public/private divide.

Often, “digital literacy” skill sets focus on the soft skills required to navigate in a digital world. But in doing so, perhaps we’re neglecting something quite fundamental to digital literacy – knowledge of the language(s) of computers themselves.

As Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them….

At the very least we must come to recognize the biases - the tendencies- of the technologies we are using, and encourage our young people to do the same.

Basic programming  could be the piece of the puzzle that young people need to fully understand how the digital world works, and how they can change it.

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