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Digital meta-literacy

This article appears in the issue January 2015, [Vol 24, Issue 1]

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I’m all in favor of digital literacy. In fact, I’m in favor of all three types (which I am making up), each one more meta than the one before. And I am especially in favor of the third, which is meta about being meta. If there were a fourth, which is meta about being meta about being meta, I’d be in favor of that one even more.

The first level of digital literacy is knowing how to handle a computer. Can you use Word? Photoshop? Connect to a wifi signal? Congratulations! You’ve earned your bronze Digital Literacy badge. (If you know how to adjust your privacy settings at Facebook, put an exclamation point at the end of that badge.)

At the second level, you know how to apply your critical thinking skills to the digital medium. In the old days, a critical thinking course would teach you how to avoid being suckered by advertisers and politicians. “Stephen Hawking says Puddin’ Pops are out of this world” isn’t really a good reason to buy Puddin’ Pops. If he said “Alpha Centauri is out of this world,” that’d be different.

To be digitally literate in this second sense you need to apply these traditional critical thinking skills to the networked world where some particular traps are more common than in the real world. For example, we need to be especially wary of believing something because the people we hang out with on the Net believe it. Falling prey to confirmation bias, as it is known, is especially easy online because our social apps work by putting us together with people who share most of our opinions. Get good at avoiding these online traps and you win your silver Digital Literacy badge.

Holders of the gold badge go up a level of meta-ness. For example, they routinely click on the “Talk” tab that accompanies every Wikipedia article. There they can see the arguments that got all the contributors onto the same page. They have also been known to click on the name of a reviewer at Amazon to see what other reviews she has written in order to judge her biases. These are the folks at Reddit who report that a comment is suspicious because the commenter always leaves positive comments about a particular product or company. These people are the Ninjas of Meta.

Going meta is especially important online for two reasons.

First, physical embodiments of ideas and knowledge usually carry implicit marks of their authority. If you’re reading a printed book, you know that it’s gone through some extensive set of filters because printing books is expensive. We all know how error-prone and subject those processes are, and we of course pay a terrible price for entrusting our culture to so few hands, but there’s also some value in it. On the other hand, that something is online can mean only that one person thought that there was some reason to post it…perhaps as an example of a post not worth posting.

Printed material also usually has an indication of its source of authority physically bound to it: The title page tells you which publisher invested in it. The cover of the magazine tells you which journal sent it around for peer review, etc. Online material often does not have any such marks on it, and when it does they can be lost as the piece is circulated.

Second, going meta is especially important online because the Web is worldwide and thus includes many local ways of talking about things and many local customs about what constitutes authority and evidence. This forces us to go up a level to consider what the authority or evidence is, and also what our own local norms are. It’s as if a witness from one judicial system is being interrogated within another country’s system. You have to get pretty darn meta to start unraveling that.

“Meta” sounds like you’re going up, but in fact it means going down: looking underneath beliefs and the evidence for those beliefs to see the assumed context, values and processes that make them seem credible. That’s why it’s good to go meta. In fact, the pursuit of truth—on or off the Net—almost always leads to the meta.  

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