Google has redesigned its verification protocols to prevent the use of stolen devices and hacking. This is no doubt a positive development for many, but carried catastrophic consequences for Jane, a precariously housed woman who relies on public access computing and who must keep her most precious information on the cloud. Jane lives in a women’s shelter and relies heavily on her Gmail account to communicate with friends, family and work. She uses her cloud storage to keep important photos and documents safe and accessible but does not have her own device, instead relying upon one of the many public computers available in the community. Changes to Gmail’s security features led to flags of suspicious activity because she logs in to multiple computers each day. One afternoon her login attempt at a community centre was flagged as possible “hacking”, with a warning message that because she was logging in from an unknown device she would need to verify that she owned the account before she could access it. Ownership could be verified by a secure access code texted to the phone number she provided when she set up the account or, by verifying the month/year the account was created, then answering the security questions she set up at the time. Jane no longer has access to the cell number listed as the phone was recently stolen, a sadly common occurrence for citizens who stay in shelters. The account was created such a long time ago that Jane could no longer remember the exact month. Indeed, who among us could remember that? After several attempts Jane’s account was locked ‘until she could provide proof’ of ownership. But there were no other options for proving ownership and in those few moments, Jane lost access to her vital documents, contacts, phone numbers, and main method of communication with no way to retrieve them. Such experiences of disconnection are deeply disruptive and traumatizing for those with histories of personal loss and abandonment.
These unfortunate cases alert our attention to how technology design distributes risk and harm and shapes life experiences. Although digital literacy skills are very important to manage email, Jane’s difficulties in this case were not caused by a lack of digital literacy skills but rather by design values and assumptions that privilege more dominant groups, in this case, those with private, secure access to their own devices (Felczak, Smith & Glass, 2009). Jane’s experience also leads us to ask, with Constanza-Chock (2018) and the Design Justice Alliance, ‘what would email design (and for that matter some government services and job applications) look like if precariously housed, homeless people and others who rely upon public access computing had a say in their design?’ Digital literacy skills are important, and digital technologies can be empowering and a force for justice when they are more democratically designed. This leads us to our third proposition.
Digital education is for everyone
Everyone should have access to timely and appropriate critical digital literacy education regardless of their print literacy skills or education background. Haight, Quan-Haase, and Corbett (2014) observe that the internet and technologies are constantly changing; the rise of social networking sites, e-government, automation, machine learning, and privacy protocols (and to this we might add the contemporary concerns of fake news and algorithms) all require ongoing access to digital literacy education that helps us think through new problems of rights and justice.
Some digital literacy frameworks see digital skills in a linear way, with ‘basic skills’ as subordinate to ‘higher order’ problem-solving skills and print literacy as a prerequisite for digital literacy. But in our work in the tech cafés, we notice that adults who might struggle with essay writing or form filling nevertheless participate in social media networks and texting, carry out parenting and work responsibilities, and may even do a lot more reading on screen than in print. The fluency and skill with which people use digital technologies vary greatly and as we have seen, these user experiences are also shaped by social positioning, by technology design, and by the quality of learning environments. There is nothing ‘basic’ about digital learning in such a dynamic and complex internet ecosystem. Bill, a participant in one of the tech cafés, helped us to understand this. Bill often attends the tech cafés to learn more about how to use his laptop. He is confident and fluent in his online activities and an active participant in social media. One day, Bill brought in a paper-based form for housing and asked if we could help him find it online but unfortunately, the housing provider would only accept hard copies of the application (a rarity indeed)! This caused Bill enormous anxiety. After a brief discussion it became clear that English was Bill’s second language, he did not see himself as a good speller, and he felt that he did not have legible writing. He stated that this made him feel stupid even though he wasn’t. He preferred to do the form online as the computer would correct his spelling and sentence structure. As digital literacy educators and researchers, situations such as this lead us to question the boundaries between print and digital literacies, and linear views of skills that place people in categories of ‘who is ready’ for digital literacy and who is not. For Bill, digital technologies allowed him to overcome the barriers of print literacy, even if the design of the system still posed difficulties.
Conclusions: Working with digital justice
A digital justice approach to literacy education asks not if people can access the Internet and digital technologies but rather how different groups experience online worlds. For example, Neil Selwyn (2010; 2014) asks, “Who benefits in what ways from Internet connectivity? How does the Internet amplify rather than disrupt existing social patterns and relations?” (p. 96). Attention to design justice also reframes a focus on individual skill deficits in literacy discourses by drawing our attention to how digital technology systems and designs produce exclusion. Working with sensibility, we might focus on design deficits rather than skill deficits. In a world of fake news, automation, privacy, and surveillance, digital literacy should be available to everyone in ways that are accessible, appropriate, and sensitive to intersecting experiences of oppression. This is not a compensatory effort, but one oriented to socio-economic inclusion, democratic rights and critical digital citizenship. In this, literacy education is a powerful site of digital justice.
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