Digital Understanding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench 2:28 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I will use the time available to make two brief points. First, we often equate digital understanding with digital skills, and I believe that is an error which will hold us back. Secondly, I suggest that digital understanding must include a willingness to impose our values on the digital environment as well as to understand it on the terms that it currently presents itself.

With regard to the first point, I draw noble Lords’ attention to a report, “Digital Skills for Life and Work”, that will be published on 17 September by the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. I declare my interest as a named contributor to this, as well my interests on the register. The report gathers some of the best research available from around the world, including from the big tech companies and concludes, in its chapter on skills, that many of the things explicitly labelled as 21st century digital skills are not actually skills but are a combination of knowledge, work habits, character traits and attitudes. The label “skills” encompasses abilities that cover a range of different technical, cognitive, social and ethical domains.

The report underlines that not all of these competencies involve direct use of digital technology. Many of them require awareness, critical understanding and non-technical expertise. In particular, it points out that digital interactions include not only what an individual does but what is done to an individual—and, increasingly, what is done to an individual when they are not consciously or deliberately engaging with the digital environment. In that case, it firmly attaches the idea of safety and security to a knowledge of and an implementation of rights.

The report states that skills, both basic and advanced, are just one small component of a broader set of literacies required for digital competency. It lays out those competencies in some detail, but I urge the Minister and the Government to embrace this notion of digital competency. I recommend the report to the many Ministers who have work in this area and will put a copy in the Library for colleagues after publication.

My second point is that technology is neutral but its culture is not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, so carefully set out. There is an awkward tension in having a technology that is able to help us to confront our societal needs—an ageing population, health outcomes, education, transport, climate change and so on—and a corporate culture that aggressively balks at the responsibilities implicit in sharing its tax burden or long-term societal responsibilities in the nation states in which they operate. They are the richest companies in the world, with a vast turnover of products which depend on their novelty and expire quickly. They reside nowhere and answer to no one because their presence and their business are considered virtual, even if the products and services they deliver are not.

Any discussion about digital understanding does not begin and end with teaching digital skills or competencies, how to protect the vulnerable online, automation or even questions of security and encryption but rather starts with the question of how we yoke the incredible power and potential of digital technology to our societal values. This in turn requires us to be somewhat clearer about what those values are, and what institutions and arrangements—national and international—are required to implement and protect those values.

The Government have announced an array of interventions in the digital environment. We await a Green Paper and a digital charter. To my knowledge, there is work going on in the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, DCMS and the Ministry of Justice. I am looking for a clear core, a clear articulation of our values and a commitment to making our children, businesses and institutions—and our Parliament—digitally competent.