Author Q&A: Why gaining digital literacy is an urgent moral calling
“How Social Media Divides the World: Seek Relationships, Truth, and Transformation by Using Technology Differently” was the theme of a June 21, 2021 online lecture by Dr. Kate Ott at the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia (the initiative is a Mennonite Central Committee partner). Ott is author of Christian Ethics for a Digital Society and professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University Theological School in New Jersey. The MCC UN Office interviewed Ott about how her book speaks to current global challenges (see related MCC UN Office articles on countering divisive information and “information disorder,” and see the China Daily article about Ott’s June lecture).
MCC United Nations Office: What drove you to write about Christian ethics in a digital age, and why do you think this topic is important for our world today?
Dr. Kate Ott: Outside of teaching, the primary thing I do is go to faith communities and talk with parents and youth about sexuality. I kept getting new questions from parents about what to do about online spaces. Should their children be using them? Is it going to destroy the world? And I thought, “I can't answer that without doing all the research behind it!” I got interested in what digital technology is doing to us on a larger scale, and how we as Christians should live in a digital world that is rapidly changing.
I want folks to understand that gaining digital literacy is part of their Christian responsibility to their families, their community and the earth. Too many of us believe that these digital systems and devices are too sophisticated for us to understand. Perhaps some of them are, but there are really smart people out there who can break that down for us and help us understand the impact it's having on our lives. I just want us to engage in that conversation, and I especially want religious leaders to feel a responsibility to equip their members.
In your book you write, “Christians who work towards social change, such as reducing economic inequality, ending racism, and responding to ecological degradation, need look no farther than their digital devices.” What do you mean?
First, I mean that we could use these digital devices for justice. We often see them in only this light—of using digital devices to quickly engage in advocacy work. But secondly, we often fail to see that much of the software we use has inequality and racial bias built into it, and online platforms are reducing the amount of diversity we see. We are also unaware that the production and operation of these devices have large ecological footprints that disproportionately affect poorer countries and communities—devices that are often designed to last no more than a few years. We should be thinking about how our access to digital devices to even read this article is part of a huge global economic divide. This is why we need to be better at digital literacy. We need to know how something is built, how it’s designed and programmed, how we use it and its larger impact.
You say that one positive thing we can practice is “ethical hacking.” What do you mean?
Ethical hacking is like pounding swords into plowshares. We can repurpose these technologies for peace. Just as a sword is a violent tool, it can be turned into a plowshare that is used for a field to feed the hungry. Similarly, digital technologies are built for certain purposes. The primary purpose is consumption. Tech companies want more data, want more interaction, want us to consume more. Christians need to push back against that. This does not mean we should completely disengage, but we should probably limit our engagement and thoughtfully control how we engage. Ethical hacking in this sense is to take the technology and repurpose it for the common good. We need to be ethical mediators in the global conversation.
Take for example how social media has increasingly been used by groups all over the world to document human rights abuses and violence. If we are “hacking” social media, it is not just clicking “like” or a sad emoji or reposting it so that everyone else in my network will see that I saw it. That’s mostly about popularity and visibility—what I mentioned before about consuming. Instead, to paraphrase Micah 6:8, we should be asking ourselves, “What does this require of me?” As Christians, we should see the humanity of the people and the communities that are represented in the visual or video. We shouldn’t just click “like,” forward it, and think that is okay. It is about the people in the video. If you see police violence on a video or violent repressions of protestors, we should be angry, crying and lamenting, not just forwarding it or liking it. What is required of me in this circumstance? In some cases, maybe it is reposting it because it is a good piece of information that needs to be amplified. In other cases, maybe we shouldn’t be reposting it, but instead posting something that helps your own community stand up for justice locally.