Technological Literacy, Economic Imperative & the Presidency
Adaptability and intellectual curiosity are key to building a top-quality 21st century workforce, as economic patterns have spread across borders and the evolution of specific industries is now a global process. Technological literacy, the ability to use, seek out, learn and re-learn, with relative independence, the technological tools now basic for top-level work output, is essential to the prolonged development of American society and to the sustainability of its lofty economic aspirations.
John McCain, in a town-hall meeting, told potential voters that when it comes to using computers "I'm an illiterate that has to rely on my wife... I can barely get the news clips that have my name on them". Was this a play at being charmingly luddite and folksy? Does the senator think the average person has so little contact with the world of email and the internet? Whichever the case, the truth of things from the standpoint of the United States in 2008, is that functional illiteracy in the use of communications technologies, like personal computers and the internet, could be catastrophic for our nation's economic future.
The best-trained workers become a liability for the overall market, if they cannot retrain easily, because the market itself becomes sclerotic, slowed, stiff, and its need to protect against the erosion of what feeds that inflexible dynamic, eventually erodes its ability to compete with more industrious centers of study, trade and manufacturing. What's more, if emerging markets, like India, are supplying our own major corporations with highly skilled computer-literate workers, at lower cost, then we find our options as a nation limited to dropping wages for lower-skilled jobs and narrower opportunity for the most advanced, state-of-the-art jobs.
Somewhere in between those two extremes, in any healthy economy, there must be a vast ocean of viable middle-class talent and ingenuity. In the information age, this ingenuity comes with technological literacy, as the first step toward permitting a 100%-generalized adaptive capacity, wherein one specialization does not rule out interacting with, or even adopting, another. In the 21st century, our nation's ability to compete, economically, scientifically, militarily and as the principal geo-political leader, will depend almost entirely on our ability to fill the need for a highly skilled, highly adaptive, technologically aware workforce, able to ably perform one skill, but learn and move into other fields as needed.
But in the everyday, each citizen of a vibrant, free society, in which the governed rule through democratic processes and media of local or mass-market reach provide an abundance of information that must be sifted through, sorted, synthesized and redeployed, both artfully and with deep personal understanding, technological literacy is a vital part of accessing the rudimentary rights and powers of citizenship. If one cannot judge the world through the world of representations it has created, then one is limited in one’s ability to flourish as a citizen in the full sense of the word.
So we come to the question of a “digital divide”: not only does a commonplace lack of technological literacy threaten the evolutionary dynamic of a workforce, the nation’s economy at its roots, it also threatens to separate society into groups that profit from information and groups that are oppressed by information’s power. Technology is not power, per se, but it is a tool for expressing interest, ability, and the will to contribute, and those who do this better may gain an all-too-significant advantage over those who have not yet even realized that such are the rules of the game.
Like any other tool, information technology is a vehicle for the exploration and the expression of humanity. When best applied, perhaps even in the process of daily living, it enables the individual in society to make more of the relationships and the opportunities that society affords. The direction, and even destiny, of an advanced industrial democracy is tied to this question of generalized opportunity.
The more the individual is free to navigate and even to reshape the landscape of social and professional interactions, the more the society as a whole is prepared to discover, capture, reproduce and deploy the knowledge-base necessary to effect its ideals and to prosper economically in an age where all institutions are defined by information that is ever more free and complex. Our policies need to be directed at this sort of socio-economic fact of postmodern life.
In the year 2000, former NJ senator Bill Bradley campaigned on a platform that included "lifelong education" as a basic right and a national aspiration. His reasoning was both simple and multi-pronged: democracy requires an awakened electorate, and our economy requires that every person be able to get new training or to amend and broaden their studies, when conditions in the marketplace warrant it, or when they have earned the rewards of time and effort and would be best served by acquiring new knowledge at a high level.
Bradley's lifelong education plan has not filtered into the mainstream of American politics, and is not at the moment "on the table". But if serious people are asking why we aren't getting real, quality training and study opportunities for all workers, shouldn't we expect thsoe who represent us in government to acquire the basic background set of skills any of those workers already needs, just to function in daily life? And beyond that, shouldn't we expect them to take notice of whether it is more or less difficult than before to bridge the digital divide and reduce the socio-economic stresses, and pitfalls, of technological illiteracy?