Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Media Literacies Skills For The 21st Century Digital Citizen

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Focused atten­tion, par­tic­i­pa­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tion and crit­i­cal con­sump­tion (which includes "crap detec­tion") are the core 21st century new media literacy skills needed to become a fully enabled and active citizen of this ongoing digital communication revolution.

Photo credit: JD Lasica

"Increas­ingly... the dig­i­tal divide is less about access to tech­nol­ogy and more about the dif­fer­ence between those who know how and those who do not know how..."

What is most impor­tant is not having access to the Inter­net but having awareness, know-how, skills and access to the basic litera­cies for the dig­i­tal age.

"The abil­ity to know has suddenly become the abil­ity to search and the abil­ity to sift" and dis­cern.

"Skill plus social" is the key.

Here's Howard Rheingold in a live video take recently recorded by JD Lasica, illustrating why 21st century new media literacies are so important for us and what are the critical skills you need to master to become a fully literate 21st century citizen:


Howard Rheingold On Essential Media Literacies

by JD Lasica

A week ago, as we were wrap­ping up the Trav­el­ing Geeks' two-day visit to Cam­bridge, I was walk­ing down the main drag with author Howard Rhein­gold when we stopped for a moment in front of King's Col­lege.

I took out my loaner Flip Ultra and shot this six-minute inter­view of Howard, col­or­fully garbed as always, in front of the 500-year-old King's Col­lege, talk­ing about 21st cen­tury literacies.

Howard hit on one major take­away that I had from our week in the UK.

"Increas­ingly I think the dig­i­tal divide is less about access to tech­nol­ogy and more about the dif­fer­ence between those who know how and those who do not know how," he said.

He is con­vinced that what is most impor­tant is not access to the Inter­net - we have more than a bil­lion peo­ple on the Inter­net now and there are four bil­lion phones out there - but access to knowl­edge and litera­cies for the dig­i­tal age. "The abil­ity to know has suddenly become the abil­ity to search and the abil­ity to sift" and dis­cern.

"Skill plus social" is the key.

Ear­lier in the week Howard gave the keynote address at Reboot Britain, and he recounts some of the high­lights here.

Among the essen­tial lit­era­cies he cites are:

  • Atten­tion
  • Par­tic­i­pa­tion
  • Col­lab­o­ra­tion
  • Crit­i­cal con­sump­tion (which includes "crap detec­tion" - we live in an age when you can get the answer to any­thing out of the air, but how do you know what and whom to trust?)

He also talks about focused atten­tion vs. mul­ti­task­ing and the impor­tance of being able to han­dle an array of tasks simultaneously.

We had a great din­ner (at an Ital­ian restau­rant), and it was a bonus to get to know Howard a bit bet­ter dur­ing our trip.


21st Century Media Literacies - Howard Rheingold

Duration: 6' 09''

Full English Text Transcription

JD Lasica: Hi. Can you introduce yourself?

Howard Rheingold: I am Howard Rheingold, @hrheingold on Twitter which I guess is the way everybody identifies these days, and that is King's College, Cambridge, behind me. Lots of famous people went there. I think, Alan Turing went there.

If you are in the computer business in the Valley or a social media analyst and you do not know who Alan Turing is - go look it up.

JD Lasica: OK, so Howard, you have done a lot of thinking about what it is coming down the pie in terms of technology in the future, so what is on your mind these days?

Howard Rheingold: Well, I am cursed and blessed to be someone living in the future.

In 1985 I published Tools for Thought about where might these personal computer go in the year 2000.

in 2002, Smart Mobs about what might people do with mobile telephones and collective action.

And now I am convinced more than I was before that what is important now is not access to hardware, access to the Internet - we have a billion people on the Internet now and more coming, have four billion phones and more coming - but access to knowledge, 21st century literacies, and I am not talking just about India and Africa, I am talking about my students at Stanford and Berkeley. That is where I started thinking about this was when I first started teaching.

I assumed that my students were like my daughter and all of my friends, I stood up and said: "You are going blog? You are going wiki?", and I got blank looks from a lot of people.

That started me thinking about what is that we assume that people know these days when everyone is carrying a laptop and a phone that is connected to the net. But the digital natives and others really are not fully literate in the use of the technologies they use and I mean by literacy a skill which is of course an individual thing - learning to ride a bicycle is not very social. But the literacy I refer to involves individual skills plus social skills.

If you are the only person in the world who knows how to ride a bicycle, that is very empowering. If you are the only person who knows how to read and write or post to the web, who cares?

I think that there are at least four central 21st century literacies:

  1. Attention: I will get back to that.
  2. Participation: Which is what I was talking about in terms of blogs and wikis, and Twitter, and all the things that people do online: how to participate well via what are now called social media, how to understand what it is about.
  3. Collaboration: How do we use the media available to us to accomplish things together?
  4. Crit­i­cal con­sump­tion: We live in a networked world, and understanding the nature, power, limits, and dangers of technical and social networks is essential to schoolchildren and entire business enterprises. What you might politely call critical consumption, or might more directly call crap-detection.

We live in an age where you can get the answer to anything out of the air. You do not have to go to a college library, but in a college library you can be pretty much sure that someone checked the truth claims in the books.

You get your answers these days out of the air from the Internet by way of search engines - it is up to you to determine whether what you find is accurate information, misinformation, disinformation, urban legend, hoaxes, spam, porn, porn spam.

The ability to know has suddenly become the ability to search and the ability to sift.

Back to attention for a moment. Again, this came to me when I was in the classroom, but of course you think about it when you are driving on the freeway and you are seeing people texting, when you are on Twitter and you are seeing things go by.

You are making decisions very quickly about:

  • What do I pay attention to at all,
  • What do I open in a tab for later,
  • And what do I bookmark for much later.

I think there is a skill-variance of people who do this decision-making better than the others and those who have developed this ability to make rapid decisions about how to deploy their attention are going to have a competitive advantage over others.

But in the in the classroom of course - it is a problem for those teachers who have been saying the same old thing for 30 years because their students are now on the Internet, they are checking what they are saying by looking it up on Google or Wikipedia, they are twittering or messaging each other in real time, and if the teacher is too boring - there are on Facebook - they are on World of Warcraft. I am not sure whether that is the best way for them to spend their attention.

I think it is not a matter that focused attention is privileged over multitasking. If you were not able to multitask, what are you going to do if an infant is crawling towards the electrical socket, the tea-kettle is boiling over, and the phone is ringing? How you were going to drive your car?

Multi-tasking, really rapid task-switching, is a useful skill in some circumstances and an obstacle to concentration and understanding in other circumstances.
Focused attention is like a spotlight and you need that kind of light if you are going to do surgery, but you need to kind of turn off that light to see everything if you are in that kind of a multitasking situation.

Nobody teaches us these skills, of course you need to learn them cross the street, there are a lot of attentional skills we pick up, but the attentional skills that come from being always on, always connected, have getting your answers from Google and Wikipedia - that is new and you are not learning it in the high school, you are not learning it in college - so I am becoming interested in how do we learn and teach these skills these days.

Increasingly I do not think the digital divide is more about people who have access to technology, I think it is more about the divide but between those who know how and those who do not know how.

JD Lasica: to use the technology.

Howard Rheingold: use the technology and how to use your mind with the technology.

JD Lasica: Yes. OK, Howard, that is a good thing to think about. Thank you so much.

Howard Rheingold: Thank you, JD.

Originally recorded and written by JD Lasica for and first published on July 18th, 2009 as "Howard Rheingold On Essential Media Literacies".

About Howard Rheingold


Howard Rheingold is a critic, writer, and teacher; his specialties are on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony and virtual communities (a term he is credited with inventing). Howard Rheingold is a visiting lecturer in Stanford University's Department of Communication where he teaches courses on Digital Journalism and Virtual Communities and Social Media. He is also a lecturer in U.C. Berkeley's School of Information where he teaches Virtual Communities and Social Media. Among his most influential books are Tools for Thought (1985), The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002).

About JD Lasica


JD Lasica is a strategist, tech entrepreneur, writer, blogger, trainer and consultant, JD is the co-founder and editorial director of, president of the Social Media Group and a partner in Outhink Media, a company that enables social media and distributed video production. He is currently helping to architect MediaMobz, a new marketplace for getting videos produced. His book Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation (Wiley & Sons, 2005) explores the personal media revolution and the emerging media landscape.

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posted by on Friday, January 22 2010, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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