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Here’s the entrance exam question for 21st century literacy:

QUESTION: If SOPA/PIPA had been passed into U.S. law in 2002, would Wikipedia exist today? If either law had passed in 2012, would Wikipedia exist in 2022? Why or why not? Discuss.


If you cannot answer that question, you are not literate nor are you in control of your life—even if you think you are. Taking the lead from Wikipedia on January 17, 2012, several Internet giants went dark or engaged in some form of protest to indicate how drastically those two badly executed bills would have curtailed the World Wide Web as we know it. The actions were successful. 8 million people looked up their Representatives’ names, 4 million actually signed petitions to protest the bills. By morning, support for SOPA/PIPA had dwindled so drastically in Congress that the proposals died. Will they next time? Will Wikipedia exist a decade from now? That is up to us.


And most of us don’t know the answer to that question. Why? Because we learn and teach in institutions that were designed to train citizens for the Industrial Age. From compulsory public schooling for K-12, to the birth of the research university, virtually all of the apparatus of “school” was designed to retrain farmers and artisans to the Industrial mode of work—division of labor, separation of work into discrete specialized tasks, the divorce of production from consumption, and the careful creation of “the consumer” (through advertising, media, and education). Prestige came through credentials, with some warranting more prestige (and remuneration) than others, and the whole process of education, from pre-school onward, trained toward the 1% who would thrive in the most elite fields in the most elite institutions.


The ways we learn, the ways we test, what we value as specialized expertise, and how we separate the two cultures (the human, social, and aesthetic from the technological and scientific) are all parts of what Frederick Taylor called “scientific labor management” and what, in education, becomes what I call “scientific learning management.” We are inheritors and perpetrators of that system.


 Unless you happen to be a Digital Humanist.  At HASTAC, we define that very, very broadly and inclusively, by participation not partitions, without delineating one field from another, academy versus the workplace, faculty versus students or staff, humanities versus technology.  We embrace a diversity in every way (“difference is our operating system not our deficit” is one of our mottoes), and by “digital humanities” we mean learning about, with, and through technology–making it, thinking about it, including it in pedagogy and institutional transformation.   Defined in these broad strokes, Digital Humanities is inclusive–and that is pretty rare in higher education. It’s rare in the academy to find any association that crosses the division of labor, the separation of work into discrete specialized tasks,  the divorcing of production from consumption.  Digital Humanities is the rare field in the academy in which you not only think about history and literature, philosophy and the arts, music and multimedia, the society in all its configurations and how that society is configured, but that also makes multimedia tools to convey complex ideas in an interactive way, to other learners and to the public.  Digital Humanities  crosses the division of labor, the separation of work into discrete specialized tasks, the divorcing of production from consumption. Digital Humanists tend to be dedicated to open access and the public component of knowledge and participation. You theorize, you make. You understand the principles that drive the World Wide Web and you even know how to remix, customize, mash-up, and make. You understand social equality and inequality, the role of gender and race or property or nation, and then you use visualization or other tools to show those arrangements in action.  And you understand that the SOPA/PIPA threat was as much about domain names and servers as it was about intellectual property and copyright.


You also A understand how all of that—the design of the technology, the software and the hardware, the laws, politics, human rights, social arrangements, economics, business, and social goods—are intertwined. Changing any one changes all the rest.


In a nutshell, that is digital literacy.


We all need it. I mean all. From preschool on, kids should be learning basic programming, Webcraft, basic skills–not so they call all grow up to be programmers, but because, if you have these skills, you can have more control over the technology that, more and more, we’re letting corporations control for us. (Why, really, why, do we have our most beautiful, user-friendly technologies–they tend to have an Apple on them–be so much about consumption and not about participation, contribution, and our own interactive production on line?) We all need to learn this, to absorb this lesson.


Digital Humanists need to start “at home,” of course, with transforming higher education and ensuring that digital literacy is pervasive, intrinsic, and basic to what every college graduate knows and does. Digital literacy means not rote learning but experimentation, process, creativity, not just technology but multimedia imagination, expression–and principles too. It means learning why we don’t have to just be consumers of technology but also active participants in its flourishing. Digital literacy helps us to believe in and fight for the Web. That’s crucial, as we saw on January 17, in order to keep the Web as free as possible, for your future and beyond. If we are going to remake the institutions of learning to help us thrive in the 21st century, we need leaders to show the way, to show how it can happen.


Digital literacy isn’t an add on but a necessity. We learned that on January 17. But where to begin? Digital Humanities are the ideal place to start a major transformation in our institutions of learning. Not only do Digital Humanists have the skillset and the intellectual commitment to help us decide the wisest and most efficient ways to reform education for the 21st century, Digital Humanists, I would argue, have the responsibility to do so.


We’re not just a “hot field” right now. We are in a position where we have been “learning the future together” (as the HASTAC motto would have it), in this unique, blended, interdisciplinary way longer than anyone else. We have had to deal with the key issues in our organizations, in our modes of publishing, in our systems of credentialing across boundaries (multimedia, theoretical, humanistic, aesthetic, computational, digital) that the rest of the academy is just coming to terms with.


That’s the challenge. That’s the opportunity. Digital Humanists can lead us to the digital literacy our society demands.


That leads to one more question: How will we lead this challenge?

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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