I went to a meeting on teaching technological literacy, especially information technology literacy, in liberal arts curricula last weekend, and I’ll probably write more about that meeting in this space shortly. Quite a few of the people attending felt the most urgent priority was to teach students how to judge the authority of information found online.
You couldn’t find a better exercise to teach from than Lappin’s flickr page, on several levels. You could just ask students to identify: a) who is joking; b) whose representations of the device are most authoritative and c) how knowledge of the device accumulates successively over time in the comments thread. You’d think a) is the easiest, but I find it’s one of the chief places that IT-illiterate people get into trouble in online environments.
Beyond that, you could use the comments thread as a springboard to talk about the distribution of collective expertise in online environments, about the sociology of information technology. I’d go so far as to make a predictive hypothesis: any mysterious technological object could be identified through online sharing of information at a significantly faster rate than artistic, cultural or historical objects or texts. Some of that distinction is changing rapidly, though not because the sociology of IT fluency is growing more diverse or distributed, but because of tools like GooglePrint. Two years ago, I would have said you could slap up a longish but not famous quotation from a well-known novel alongside the picture of the RADIAC device and seen how long it took people to meaningfully identify each of them, and predicted the quote would almost always have come last. Now that’s not a good test any longer.
It’s not just sociology, of course, not just that the most IT fluent people skew towards technological or scientific knowledge. It’s also that humanistic knowledge is more open to fundamental epistemological disputes. Many of the things which could be said to be discretely “known” by humanists couldn’t just be put up on a flickr page for collective identification, since there might be a dispute about what is knowable. (This is a big dimension of competitive grant competitions where humanists and scientists are both in the pool: the scientists tend to have much more agreement about the basics of what constitutes a competitive proposal.)
Still, this is one reason why I’m so eager to ensure that humanists be as IT-fluent and engaged by online discourse as anyone else. When you see that message thread, it’s really a thing of beauty to behold, a moment where we’ve arrived in a future that was once a dream and found out that it really works. To build on that promise, we need everyone to come inside the tent, where knowledge becomes truly democratic in its provision and yet where there is a continuing value in having some people know some things well that other people do not: a perfect balance of specialized expertise and shared knowledge.