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Digital literacy: might lightweight technology and proper help lower the stick?

I love figure skating (in the sense: love watching others do). It's a marvel of coordination and perfect body control. Strong effort so perfectly performed that an inexperienced one like me sees only grace and beauty.

We don't think this too much, but interacting with a computer and the web is no less complex. Once you gain a sufficient level of proficiency, all seems streamlined, easy, even obvious (forgive me).

The truth is, at least as I remember it for me and my acquaintances, it took years to understand the hows, some of the whys, and a bit of self-protection habits. A first obstacle was in our case cultural, and I guess still is: simply, computers were "just" complex calculators: with a background in applied maths, the way I conceived them was purely instrumental to large scale computations. We did not realize the communication potential until very late, and I remind quite well the early lack of confidence about the first e-mail attempts in early Nineties.

Above all, the experience was solitary on these times. Computers were common but not so widespread as they are today. And the web still, let me say, primitive?

I know, by personal experience, how much of importance was -for me and my friends- being "mentored" the lightweight way by people who already knew the trick. More than the technical skill, what I found precious was their example opened our minds, and built the critical mass of self-confidence on which to add our personal experience.

This mentoring was not something planned - it occurred purely by chance - nor it took a significant share of time. But ten twenty minutes were sufficient to formulate the first key "But then it is possible to...?"

* * *

Not all people were effective as involuntary mentors to me. Unsympathetic or aggressive geeks (a common case) had more effects making me feel an idiot, rather than growing. I remember the best experience was with people "like me", and I guess a possibility to identify with them was crucial.

If this is true on a global scale, we need many people "like us". Practically-minded. Not delving themselves in some religion wars among systems. Supportive, rather than competitive. People who remember well when they were on their beginnings...

* * *

For developing digital literacy, the "digital" is needed. This may be a problem, especially in low-population-density areas where operators may not invest on placing wires with no real prospective return.

In these areas, long-range wireless may prove a viable alternative. Maybe, by restricting the band somewhat? The act of communicating (reading, writing, or sending/receiving highly compressed movies or images) is not that band-wasting as some form of online gaming or Internet television, and might be accommodated with a bandwidth quite less than current standards. Lower bandwidth tends to mean (for physical reasons) longer range, more reliable and less costly on energy side than super-wide-band. Might this mean a global cover is possible? Maybe in not-for-profit mode?

I feel this is worth an evaluation.

Added benefits would include the possibility to disseminate remote areas with sensors, improving the coverage of existing meteorological/geological networks with an interesting benefit on, to name one, the global climatological models.

* * *

To connect to the net a computer or something similar is needed. Computer technology may look "cheap" to whom, like me, lives in a relatively rich country. But the reality is, they still are a big cost in most areas.

Maybe, technology could help. I'm testing for professional reasons the Raspberry Pi. This is not an endorsement, but my feeling is this could be interesting. The cost of a single computer is around 30 € (still a huge cost in too many places), plus the necessity of adding a monitor, a keyboard, a power supply, a memory card, and some other expensive and delicate paraphernalia. Anyhow, it sees to me a step in the right direction: no moving parts like hard disks, extremely small footprint, robustness, and a lot of computing power - sufficient to hold and sustain a wideband Internet connection.

Many steps are still necessary: an inexpensive keyboard rugged enough to function years after exposure to quartz desert dust. A monitor large enough to be read easily but not so expensive as current ones. And, very low power.

* * *

In my feeling and experience, there is a dimension of digital literacy which is not (necessarily) related to "communicating", at least apparently, and has to do with computer programming. Anyone of us (after proper mentoring ;-) ) can discover we all can write programs. This is an important step in developing a rightfully skeptical and practical attitude towards technology.

We're literally surrounded by computers, most often in the form of hard-to-perceive embedded systems. An average car contains an ABS, airbags, engine controller, speed display, and many other pieces which are computers, programmed by someone we don't know, and performing a lot of tasks we should better know of. This might be unrealistic, if we pretend to learn "anything". But could be of great help, if we want to live in this world as citizens.

Computer programming is unfortunately one of the activities where angry people seem to concentrate. I said unfortunately, both because this affects somewhat the quality of existing software, and because in reality the type of attitude and skill necessary to form a great programmer are quite right the contrary: empathy (at least, in the form of imagining how others could react to one's own techy masterpiece), desire to be open, resilience, no need to prove the World being the number one on the technical prowess scale. And, yes, programming can well be quite a "feminine" activity - even in the technical-practical sense of "quite perfect for the typical (?) female brain" (?).

A lot to do...

But persevering, one drop a time, million after million of drops, it cuts stone.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Women Weave the Web Digital Action Campaign. Learn more »


susa's picture

Water can cut stone!

Dear Mauri,

Thank you for such a wonderful cornucopia of reflections, insights and suggestions about digital literacy -- the obstacles and opportunities. Your comments about the importance of mentors who are supportive and empathetic remind us all that the ordinary was once extraordinary and that we all have the opportunity to "pay it forward" to help others overcome initial barriers to access to and utilisation of digital technology. I was also especially interested in your comment about getting beyond digital literacy as a communicative tool (as essential as that is) and to entering the realm of computer programming. Perhaps this is an aspect of digital literacy that can get more attention in the future and can attract more women to the opportunities it affords. You have great ideas! I hope you will continue to raise your voice on these issues and inspire other women to become digital literati!

With appreciation,

Mauri's picture

Thank you, Susa, for your

Thank you, Susa, for your warming words!

I understand, the subject is not one of the most appealing - on the surface. But a better knowledge, and a warmer, less indifferent introduction, could make us all humans better citizens, and more effective actors where action is needed.

Your support encourages me to go on (yes, this is a little announce! OMG, Berlusconi style? I'm blushing red at the thought). In the next few days I'll account for a didactical project on embedded system engineering, aimed at high school and beginning undergrads, Nothing dramatic, I imagine, but an occasion to show in practice what I've said in words. I'll post to my journal, hoping it will be useful.

In the meanwhile, I thank you again, and my best wishes for a nice Easter and next days, in hope they're happy for you, and all of us.


Hi Mauri!
I read your post with great interest and related to it right from the start! I also love watching figure skating (and I enjoy skating too, especially outdoors in the winter) and it is so cool how the best skaters make the most difficult moves seem easy. I had never thought about how that analogy applies to the internet but it's so true. Your post made me think back to the winter of 1997 when I had just turned 13 and was beginning my love affair with the internet, which is still on going :) But yes, I definitely learned a lot about the internet from so many different people - many of whom I have never met and never will meet but whose articles and blogs I read and loved.

I love how your post touched on so many topics. I think that's great because there are so many aspects to digital literacy. I think many of your ideas have the spark needed to succeed and I hope they will! I especially loved what you wrote about women needing to program too. I think that would increase the ways women interact online and what they can offer others - people of all genders and backgrounds.

Anyway, I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more of what you write.

Best wishes,

Mauri's picture

Julia, thank you for your

Julia, thank you for your warming words!

Yes, one of the point I'm most sure of, is we users should develop some (maybe even minimal, but nonzero) grasp about programming.

This is true to anybody, but in my view to women in particular: too many are moved out of programming, imagined as a "nerdy" activity, or assuming programmers are aggressive dudes. That is, "somethng highly unfeminine". This is a pity, programs being so widespread we don't even notice them. Programming is a very nice activity, too, and can in my view be conceptualized in different terms as usual.

Fisrt, maybe, by helping new programmers-in-pectore adopting a language which is expressive and relatively easy to learn (my preferred is Python, which I find really powerful and yet relatively simple-structured; it's worth investing time anyway, as its huge "libraries" allow to do "anything" one can imagine).

And then, by framing programming as a process in which someone -the "programmer- tells something someone else, either directly, through the action her/his program will do with that person, and indirectly, to say important things about the whys and whats to peope who will maintain the program, or try learning it...

Programming needs not being a solitary activity, too (although in some cases it may be). It's really a huge co-creation.

And, programming allows lifting the veil of the massive technological cover surrounding our civilization.

Finally, programming can be really fun!





It is with a lot in interest that I have your post touching on many aspects of digital literacy among women. To cite a personal example, I had my first experience with a computer in a cyber cafe and even then a friend helped me create a Yahoo account then later I went on to college to get a few insights on computer applications before finally joining the university. Looking back to those days I remember how the computer seemed such a complex item and simple functions were made complex by those introducing me to it. I guess this is where your point on Supporters comes in. Without a doubt, we need to reach out to those who are still familiarizing themselves with computers and lift them up.

The other point which is quite striking is the programming bit. If we(women) are to own the webs then we have to dive in completely. We have to learn every bit of it regardless of the technicalities. As such it is with great pleasure that I recognize the efforts of organizations and people who are introducing young girls and women to the exciting world of programming.

It is really great to have you point out these important factors in the grand goal of having women weave the webs.



Mauri's picture

Dear, thank you for your

Dear, thank you for your words!

Sure, "programming" is "doing", on the net, in a bit different manner than using things already built. It's very much about "agency", something not expected by girls and women, yet a step I feel useful to become full-fledged digital citizens.

And, sure, one can't break the barrier, and become a programmer, without a welcoming community. At least, not all people. Sure, some are so motivated, by the subject itself or by the idea of showing some prowess, to learn even against pressures trying to repel or ignore them.

I wasn't in that number however ;-) And, was lucky having found some figures who mentored me and, on my beginning, did not judge the stupid errors I made too harshly. It was hard, that's for sure - the prevailing attitude was a "sink or swim" culture, with the not-so-hidden assumptions that it was not proper for women to do anything different from secretarial jobs.. Yet, in the end the help I was gifted of gave its fruits.

Now, I try mentoring the same way students, thanks to theses and labs. But you know, this is never enough...

In Italy, a steady decline has occurred of people (women especially) from taking scientific courses, and to prefer things like economics or law, which are considered "more fashionable" (and of course, more ladylike). But this is a big pity: in the world to come we need people who can *build* wealth, not only redistribute or patent it. So, you see, being citizens also means being productive.

Hope, however, never ends. And trying to infuse some bits of passion and enthusiasm is always to be done.



phoang's picture

Education is key

Hi Mauri!

Agree with your points that we need more willing mentors to teach everyone, including young girls, to learn about digital literacy and basic access to technology and the Internet -- perhaps even teaching them coding and programming. In this day and age, with the prevalence of laptops, desktops, mobile phones, social networks, etc., there shouldn't be any barriers to access for any groups of people. It's encouraging to hear that there are people who think deeply about these issues. Thanks for sharing! -- Phuong

Dear Phuong,

really, without mentoring we risk losing the kind of people able to make a difference in today's and future technology, computers and networks in particular.

I agree with you completely, that there should be no barrier to access for everyone. And meanwhile, I see how a technology presenting an apparently friendly face, in which anything "behind the scenes" stays accurately hidden, may be the origin of the next years big Digital Divide: between all people who use technology as it is, and the few who can write code, and change the rules at their will.

I feel this possible (although not necessary) evolution is not entirely desirable. It's a question of democracy in technology.



judyannet's picture

Mauri, I agree we must not


I agree we must not let hope die, let's keep doing our bit and I am sure we will create a ripple effect at the end of it all.I specifically like your point 'being citizens also means being productive' this however is something most of us have forgotten. Thanks for pointing it out.

Wishing you all the best and looking forward to hearing more from you.


Dear Judy Annet, thank you for your encouragement.

I agree, we need all together initiate a ripple, which can self-sustain and spread.

I see some signs times may be mature, both from technological standpoint (I saw the specs of new "low cost" and small form factor Raspberry Pi and other similar "didactical" designs, and was impressed by both the surprising degree of power *and* the fact these designs are indeed really "open"), and the human side: a new willingness to understand, grasp the bases of all technology which happen to evolve around us so fast...

My current concern is, most of this sparkling interest looks motivated by a sheer desire to just understand how things work - a somewhat "nerdy" attitude if you forgive my nasty term. This is not the most important point in my feeling, however. A real novelty would come from an increase of attention to the "human" aspects of digital technology. On responsibility on behalf of designers. On a willingness of experimenters and doers to let others really understand, and learn.

That's might be our specific role, however.. ;-)



muhorakeye's picture

Merci pour ce merveilleux

Merci pour ce merveilleux corne d'abondance de réflexions, idées et vos suggestions sur l'alphabétisation numérique est nécessaire , Vos commentaires sur l'importance des mentors qui sont favorables et empathique. la
communication est aussi essentielle , peut-être un aspect de la culture numérique qui peut obtenir plus d'attention à l'avenir et peut attirer plus de femmes aux opportunités qu'elle offre. Vous avez de bonnes idées ma cher! J'espère que vous allez continuer à élever votre voix sur ces questions pour sauve les femme qui sont encore dans le difficulté et d'inspirer d'autres femmes à devenir compétente sur ce matière

Muhorakeye Esperance

Mauri's picture

Thank you very much for let's

Thank you very much for let's xawarm comment!

I agree with you strongly that an empathetic mentoring is of great importance to get active programming literacy. Made by the right people, it might lower very significantly the barrier many poeple experience.

It could also form a mindset which is less self-centered, and closer (as far as I feel...) to "reality": coding is a way to communicate with people, mediated by some technology which, let's say it, is objectively difficult to learn and master. Yet, it's core to so much happening around of us.

Indirectness, in communication, has in my feeling the potential for dangers, like placing hidden agendas (maybe unintentionally!). Hence a lot of responsibility we all have when co-mentoring and doing... ;-)



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