The New Underclass: C:/DOS, C:/DOS/RUN, RUN/DOS/RUN

I have very early memories of using computers in school that many of my RMIT classmates would not have encountered, for a start, there was no mouse. You had to have at least a fundamental knowledge of MS-DOS commands to find your way around, with the introduction of Graphic User Interfaces (GUI) most users now can only navigate a computer using a mouse and cursor, including many of us who experienced the final days of command line navigation. The lack of uptake of code was perhaps a major reason the MySpace platform had to undergo such change and lost out in the long run with users migrating to Facebook where building a profile was made easy with tools rather than the requirement of understanding code even at a basic (Dan Perkel, School of Information, University of California in this paper discusses the copying and pasting of code in the early MySpace platform to appropriate other people’s media)

Dan Rowinski writes on  “Everyone ought to be able to read and write; few people within the global mainstream would argue with that statement. But should everyone be able to program computers? The question is becoming critically important as digital technology plays an ever more central role in daily life.” (read more) – In the week 4 symposium Adrian made a really quick pass at the notion of emerging classes based on new literacies, a really fascinating idea that I would have liked to have seen unpacked some more.

It’s no new idea that illiteracy prohibits participation in a culture. So why are we all so illiterate in the building blocks of our most prominent emerging culture? Illiteracy segregates, it restricts access, it constrains opportunity, and slows development and progress more widely. Illiteracy is broadly accepted as being defined as a lack of communication skills (traditionally in written communication) to be able to function at certain levels of society. Coding illiteracy inhibits our ability to function at the level of building constructs within the growing digital realm, we are able to use constructs other literate people build for us, if they make them “user friendly”, offering us tools and functions within their constructs to navigate in usually familar spatial and temporal ways, but we cannot understand how it works, we can’t make these spaces for ourselves and we can’t alter them outside of the permitted accessible functions.

A limited network literacy limits your ability to affect change and shape our own environments in an increasingly digital and online world. The public sphere of communication and public debate exists ever increasingly online, to what extent this will continue is unclear. What is clear though is that the platforms through which we engage are developed and written in code. The way these platforms work on such a structural and fundamental level may seem irrelevant to our ability to use them, however we use them only through tools that are developed to allow us to exploit certain restricted functions. The potential functions of the internet are exponentially higher than the permitted functions we are given access to through these user interfaces, which are in essence a mask between us and the true face of the platform.

We now live in a world separated into those who know the central mechanisms of our computer-centric society and those who don’t. This has happened slowly over time, but has deep effects on our future. In the early days of computers being a “hacker” was something entirely different to the stigmatized picture of a hacker we have today. It meant you held power over computing code, you could break it, change it, build it, make it do new and exciting things. In the film Jurassic Park  the character ‘Lex’ positively self identifies as a hacker rather than a ‘computer nerd’ and ultimately her computer skills save the day (admittedly she’s never shown to have coding skills she uses a GUI to regain control on the park – but her value was that she was the only one to be able to manipulate the system to control it)

In the documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy”, computer programmer, internet entrepreneur and internet freedoms activist Aaron Swartz’s siblings describe his childhood and equate coding and programming to magic and it’s masters as being superheroes who can do things “no-one else can do”.

Information technology is a trillion-dollar global industry, with multitudes of trained hands designing its products. Outside of these developers and programmers, however, the typical user’s aptitude to comprehend and modify the tools they are using has steadily declined; making us both increasingly dependent on those in the know and increasingly distanced from them — as discussed in other blogs, to hold power to account we must have transparency and we must understand how that power works, information technology and digital platforms hold a steadily increasingly amount of power over our lives.

Many users are unaware of even basic underlying concepts like binary, but learning to imagine the code behind the digital services we are using means appreciating that what we are looking does not exist in the form that it does simply as some undeniable certainty of the cosmos; it is just a construct, dependent on how it was coded by other human being.

Facebook, Google, Mozilla, Apple, Windows, WordPress, YouTube, WhatsApp, Skype and all other corners information technology, all these digital networked communication platforms offer usually privately owned platforms up as public space for discussion, but all are constructed in a somewhat opaque manner, obscured from their users vision due to a literacy barrier.  The public are invited to use them without understanding them fully.

In much the way that understanding the political system is important for a functioning democratic state. This is important for users to understand how the platforms they use are built, comprehending that the system you use is only a system; that it can exist as something different and be criticised is important to know; and that, even if you do not directly understand how to rebuild it, how to deconstruct it, it’s important to understand that other do, that people make this space, and can change it.

The question is will the power to change and shape our new digital world reside with the few or the many?

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