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Internet era life skills

I recently encountered somewhat shocking — though not necessarily surprising — data about the average person’s computer skills. The vast majority of people are not able to complete complex tasks on a computer. Only five percent of Americans had high level computer skills that allowed them to do things like troubleshoot or analyze data using multiple tools.

These data are from 2011-2015, so the numbers have certainly changed. I would definitely guess there are fewer people who are unable to use a computer at all. But, I was discussing with a friend that we doubted there’s been a substantial increase in the number of people able to complete complicated, multi-step, multi-program tasks. Over the past ten years, technology and user interfaces have trended towards simplification and single-task software (there’s an app for that!). Reducing friction for common tasks removes challenges people might have needed to troubleshoot in the past — and if you don’t ever face problems accomplishing what you need to, you never get to practice or even develop troubleshooting skills.

And basic computer literacy isn’t enough to get by in the internet age. Someone learning how to use the internet today needs to also learn a broad range of skills to protect themselves, communicate effectively, and obtain trustworthy information. Too many people are credulous and uncritical in what they believe. There are so many dark design patterns (or are we not calling it that anymore?) and bad actors attempting to manipulate you that it requires a bulwark of skills to defend against having your time and money stolen, or even worse, indoctrination.

Many of these skills are personal responses to systemic problems that some regulation might assist with. Not that regulation is easy: GDPR wound up giving us all obnoxious popup cookie banners instead of reducing the cookies websites use or data corporations collect — but at least some websites do now allow you to reject non-essential cookies.

Online research skills

Online communication skills

  • conveying tone in writing through email and texting
  • setting boundaries around online communication with friends, family, and work
  • learning social norms in digital communities
  • following changing terminology, meanings of emojis, and subtextual meaning of phrases, images, and symbols by hate groups
  • recognizing strawman arguments, ad hominem attacks, bothsidesism and fearmongering
  • ignoring the trolls and the comments

Online security skills

  • protecting the security of your personal data online
  • understanding how companies assert ownership and use rights of anything posted or created with their service
  • staying up to date on security best practices
  • spotting bad renewal terms on subscriptions
  • identifying scams
  • blocking ads

Tech tool skills

  • interacting with new user interfaces
  • learning how to use new software and tech devices
  • choosing which tools to use for the job
  • evaluating the ethical implications of the tools you use
  • controlling notifications across devices and software
  • identifying manipulative design practices
  • creating physical and virtual environments that help you maintain control of your attention

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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