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Navigating through a universe of information

By John Hartley - posted Monday, 7 May 2007

There has been much comment recently on Kevin Rudd’s proposal to fast-track broadband infrastructure in Australia. Even the government thinks this is a good idea. The only difference between the parties is whether it should be supported with public as well as private finance.

Not much of the debate has been concerned with what Australians might do with their digital capability once they’ve got it. Even less thought seems to have gone into how they - or rather we - will acquire the skills and motivations required to benefit fully from this new toy. Political attention is focused on publishers and providers not consumers and users.

The 19th and 20th centuries were notable for massive and sustained public investment in schools and (later on) universities - the infrastructure needed to deliver near-universal print-literacy at low cost to the user. Right around the world the cost was justified in order to produce modern citizens and a disciplined, skilled workforce for industrialisation.


That effort has not been matched in the digital era. The physical ICT infrastructure that has developed since the 1990s has not been matched by a concomitant investment in education - public or private - to promote creative uptake of digital technologies by entire populations.

Usage across different demographics is patchy to say the least, continuing to reproduce the class and demographic divides inherited from the industrial era. The scaling up of digital literacy is left largely to entertainment providers and those who want users for their proprietary software applications. In other words, the market.

But what about the intended beneficiaries of party-political competition and education policy - young people especially? If we’re to believe what we read about Generation Y and “digital natives”, they are already in evolutionary mid-step. Today’s 13-year-olds - those who’ll be retiring from work around the year 2060 - seem almost a different species from modernists reared in the image of industry.

Teens evidently don’t see computers as technology. It’s as if they’re born with an innate ability for text-messaging and gaming. And while they may not be able to spell they can tell you their life story on MySpace, entertain you on YouTube, muse philosophically in the blogosphere, contribute to knowledge on Wikipedia, and create cutting-edge art on Flickr.

If they’re anything like my daughter they can do most of these things at once, and then submit their efforts to an online ethic of collective intelligence (via MSN, SMS) and iterative improvability that is surely scientific in mode.

But they learn very little of this in school. For the most part the education system has responded to the digital era by prohibiting school-based access to digital environments, apart from walled gardens under strict teacher control.


From this, kids also learn that formal education’s top priority is not to make them digitally literate but to “protect” them from “inappropriate” content and online predators. So a good many of them switch off, and devote their energies to daydreaming and making mischief. And there’s the rub. Daydreaming is just another word for identity-formation using individual imagination. Mischief is no more than experimental engagement with peer-groups and places.

Teenage daydreaming and mischief have been the wellspring of the entertainment industry from time immemorial, supplying the characters, actions and plots of fantasy fiction from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to I Know What You Did Last Summer. Popular culture has prospered by capturing the attention, mood, time, activities and culture of young people in their leisure moments, just beyond the institutional grasp of family, school or work.

So while schools and universities keep their distance, purposeless entertainment has nurtured demand for creative self-expression and communication among the young. Until recently, that demand has been provided on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by experts and corporations with little input (apart from cash) by the consumers themselves.

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About the Author

John Hartley is an ARC Federation Fellow and research director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT. He is the author and editor of many books and articles in the field of cultural, media and journalism studies, including Creative Industries (published by Blackwell, Oxford, 2005).

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