Importance of Information Literacy

Information wants to be free, but as with freedom, there is a price to pay. The price is steep and complex. You have to battle privacy issues, political will and all sorts of concerns where information is at stake. The issue of making information free or open has its champions and critics. Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd has more to say:

The issues with transparency are similar to the issues with Internet access and the digital divide. In focusing on the first step – transparency or access – it’s easy to forget the bigger picture. Internet access does not automagically created an informed citizenry. Likewise, transparent data doesn’t make an informed citizenry. Transparency is only the first step. And when we treat transparency as an ends in itself, we can create all sorts of unintended consequences. For this reason, I think that we need to critically think through not just transparency, but the information landscape around transparency.

Transparency is important, but it’s not enough to achieve the goals that we attribute to the reasons behind wanting to fight for transparency. So if you’re fighting for transparency, you need to understand these three things:

1) Information is power, but interpretation is more powerful
2) Data taken out of context can have unintended consequences
3) Transparency alone is not the great equalizer

The #1 goal of transparency is to empower people, to give them an opportunity to be informed as citizens, to allow them to be a check to power. But when those in power release data in a way that allows them to maintain power, we’ve got a huge problem. The technologies that we love are making it easier to make information available, but our challenge goes beyond releasing data from its chains. We must also help people develop the skills to interpret data. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. There’s a reason why people are perceived of as experts – it’s often because they know how to interpret information. Information is most useful to people when they have the skills to interpret it. This requires education. Information’s power comes from your ability to assert your interpretation of it over others’ interpretation. This requires confidence and a strong structural position. Because of this, making information available alone is not the great democratizer. It must be coupled with enabling people to have the skills to interpret it.

To capitalize on transparency, we need information literacy. This means media literacy and digital literacy too. Information literacy includes the skills necessary to interpret information in a context. Information literacy isn’t something that people develop just because information is available. So assuming that they will emerge once we unlock information is naive. Furthermore, skills aren’t distributed randomly across the population. Eszter Hargittai has consistently shown that those who are most privileged in our society are more likely to have information literacy skills. What this means is that those who are most privileged are more equipped to make sense of and use the information that they have access to. If you want information access because you want a better informed citizenry and a fairer society, you must start embracing the importance of information literacy and the need to provide infrastructure to help people build these skills. Providing broadband access is wonderful, but without the skills to make sense of what the Internet provides, access does nothing. The same is true for information transparency. And we can’t wait until we get transparency to start creating a citizenry who has the skills to interpret the data that will be made available.

As a side note, Boyd’s point that “Information is power, but interpretation is more powerful” sounds a lot like Einstein’s famous quote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

To make sense of knowledge at hand, you have to use imagination. That is, seeing the forest from the trees.