Making to participate

Effective digital participation can only come when you understand how the technologies you are using are made, says Dan Sutch

Digital Participation is a phrase that brings together much of our work at Nominet Trust. This isn’t just about participating in digital communities, though of course that plays a part. Rather it is about people using digital technologies to participate effectively within communities important to them – whether they be local, international, interest-led, or action orientated. With the rapid increase in the ubiquity of digital technologies and the ways in which they are developed and used across all areas of our lives (from engaging with government services, marketplaces, formal education or peer groups), being able to participate effectively requires engaging directly with the tech. 

Supporting individuals and communities to use digital technologies safely and effectively is a vital role of enabling a cohesive and inclusive society.

One important aspect of digital participation then is developing digital skills – the confidence and competence to use technology effectively. At the heart of this is developing digital and web literacy and safe online practices, but there’s something that underpins all of this: understanding how digital technologies are made.

For the last three years we’ve been working to help young people become digital makers – that is, to be able to make, rather than just use digital technologies. Although there are good economic and creative reasons for this, the driving purpose is that taking apart, testing and making gadgets, devices or websites allows young people to understand how they are made and therefore how they both support and constrain how we can participate in using them.

A phrase that’s useful here is digital architecture. Architecture in the physical world influences our actions – where we cross the street, where we walk to avoid road works or where we turn left or right. The digital world has similar influences, but they’re not as obvious or as well understood. Learning how technologies are made makes the design decisions of technologists and designers a little more explicit.

Most search engines try to provide you with the most relevant answer to your query but if you search for something using or you’ll find different responses – that’s due to how the algorithms determine what is ‘relevant’. This might, or might not, be important as you search for some information but understanding this digital architecture is incredibly important when it influences how we interact with things that really matter, like the way we communicate with our friends and family or vital public services. The #facebookexperiment showed how the order Facebook posts appear in your timeline can influence your mental outlook. That same experiment also demonstrates how designers make decisions about the order information is provided and the user journey you can take. When it comes to participating in communities that matter to you, understanding how the digital tools support and constrain the way you act is important. Effective digital participation can only come when you understand how the technologies you are using are made.

Recent research from Julian Sefton-Green and Lucy Brown mapped how young people progress into digital creativity, showing the sorts of experiences that support this journey. Whilst the new computing curriculum is important, this research shows how essential non-school experiences are in supporting digital making. Finding (or setting up) the nearest Code club, Coderdojo or FabLab, and linking to events such as Raspberry Jam are necessary compliments to what can be achieved within schools.

This doesn’t mean young people all have to become expert coders or computer scientists; while understanding how digital technologies work is at the heart of those things, it is also the crucial factor that enables them to digitally participate. If they do stumble across a brilliant idea whilst making something digital, then they could also participate in the iDEA programme.

Dan Sutch is Head of Development Research at Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading investor in tech for good ventures.


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