Does the US Election tell us anything about Computer Literacy?

by Liza Loop

It’s strange how current events bring up old questions. Today, in the aftermath of the US Presidential election, I came across this comment:

(Source: Trump Exposes A Fatal Flaw In User-Friendly Design)

The author,  Cliff Kuang, is keying off a previous piece, Max Read’s article for New York, “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.” Follow these links to read their points.

My point is that there are two kinds of Computer Literacy: Technical and Social. There has always been (since the 1960s) a tension between these two.  Some argue that learning to code (write programs that control computer-based devices) and/or build/repair them will lead to modern jobs. This technical approach appeals to STEM types (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) but turns off  most of us.

The Social approach is much more important and accessible. It emphasizes understanding a) how a computer can suggest, say, a list of like-minded Facebook ‘friends’ and b) that designing computer code always requires a series of value decisions on the part of some human. Learning some very rudimentary coding gives one that heady and powerful experience of controlling the computer and makes it possible to take in these messages. But even 10-year-old can get here without a semester-long course in coding. By combining a little coding with a broad look at how computers are used across our daily life activities, the social approach to computer literacy can serve as a vaccine against the kind of group-think that has been rampant on both sides of today’s political divide.

These issues were often the subject of lively debates among the Ed Tech Pioneers we are documenting at HCLE. Some of us worried that using computing to make things smooth, easy, and automated would make it harder to uncover the algorithm, the recipe, the program that drives what the computer delivers to each one of us. These two articles suggest that we were right.

I’m not advocating that computers are evil or should not be used. Quite the contrary; they are giving an immense boost to human productivity, saving and enhancing the lives of billions of people. I am saying that their very existence necessitates more thoughtful and analytical education of today’s citizens. I am saying that to neglect Social Computer Literacy is to create a naive public whose opinions are silently manipulated (whether intentional or not) by those who design the programs.

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