NY Times article wastes time with false digital literacy argument

This NYTimes article, “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era,” is currently making waves in the media ecosystem. I find it troubling, but maybe not for the reasons that others have written about. It basically reports on new research that suggests poor, young people are wasting more time with digital media than their more affluent counterparts, and that policy makers need to ramp up their digital literacy funding.

I’m bothered by the metaphor of “time-wasting” being used without qualification–it’s a metaphor about how the net is used that has some implicit biases–even class bias. Whereas the educated and affluent don’t waste time, poor people do. Are they somehow supposed to be more productive, but are not because they are not intellectually active members of society? I think the article alludes to the problem of why poor young people lack supervision (overworked parents)–but why is it that their activities are considered inherently time-wasting? Do we really know how and why they are using media? This reminds me of Gramsci’s discussion of the organic intellectual: “All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the functions of intellectuals.”

The other problem I have for how the article is framed has to do with its uncritical use of the term “digital literacy.” While it is true that many advocates for digital literacy (such as governments and mainstream educators) see it as a path to greater participation, there are other people who see digital literacy as requiring a dimension of critical engagement that leads to cultural citizenship. I think critical digital literacy makes more sense in this situation. This way, rather than encouraging the further “waste of time” of uncritical engagement with media technology, young people can be encouraged to become active, reflective cultural citizens of their media environment. Here is one example of how it could be done. But don’t expect such solutions to come from corporate funders who prefer young people not think too critically about issues like social justice and ecology.

I think the solution advocated by the Times article is essentially a neoliberal response by encouraging an unobtrusive private sector literacy approach that reinforces preexisting power relations in which youth are encouraged to “waste time” with a corporatized Internet through a semi-passive, uncritical form of literacy.

  • Great critique of the NYT piece, Antonio, and excellent points all around. Thanks for the link to the DYN project. I’ll have to try some of their critical media literacy exercises with some young fans of Disney shows I know…

  • Antonio. Thank you. YES YES YES.

  • Antonio

    Thanks! It just goes to show that the conventional wisdom usually isn’t wise.