Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

Orange Unit: A Person-Centered Launch

2A: Critical Social + Technical Perspective

Background Knowledge Probe

  • In what ways have you been shaped by technology? When, where, how, and why?
  • In what ways have you helped to shape technology? When, where, how, and why?
  • In what ways have the people closest to you been shaped, positively and negatively, by this shaping of technology? When, where, how, and why?

Digital Technology = Social + Technical

There’s a growing realization that our digital technologies are actually a seamless, indivisible combination of artifacts, people, organizations, policies, economics, histories, cultures, and knowledge – that they are sociotechnical products. And over the last several decades, this has gone further to acknowledge a mutual shaping of gender and technology.[1] As a result, the reliable, anticipatable relationship between user input and system output is complicated by the continuous evolution of experience, knowledge, history, culture, economics, and policies of users and society. The social characteristics cannot be readily planned for or controlled, especially as sociotechnical products are continuously co-created by everyday users to fit the ever-changing contexts and knowledge of users and their communities.[2] As such, a reductionist and positivist approach and associated deductive reasoning common in much of basic research must be complemented by, and live in continuous tension with, an interpretive approach and associated inductive reasoning of the social scientists, and even more importantly, with the community cultural wealth, expertise, and knowledges of community members.


[A]n innovation is not an object that can be packed inside a box, but rather a set of practices that emerges from the social setting of its use. Thus, in a sense, the user does not accept or reject an innovation but instead creates it through action in the world.

Bertram Bruce, Andee Rubin, and Junghyun An, “Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems”

In his thought-provoking 2015 book, Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama notes that technology does not itself have agency to transform us and the world around us. Rather, humans use technology to amplify our individual and group forces to transform our world. This is primarily framed from the perspective of the everyday user. However, if we bring criticality together with an interpretive sociotechnical perspective, we also need to reflect on the human forces amplified at each level of a product’s life cycle.[3] We need to ask: How are the forces of engineers, computer scientists, and garage inventors; of the president, CEO, board, and shareholders of corporations; of the marketers and salespeople; of government legislators and administrators; of educators and social service agencies; of individuals and groups as co-creators; and of the many others in the product life cycle, amplified in ways that are consistent with and counter to the values and goals of those using the sociotechnical product at each stage of the artifact’s life cycle?

Image highlighting the ways the technical shape the social and the social shape the technical across the multiple layers of amplification from everyday user/co-creator; to family, neighbors, and community; to caregivers/support providers; and governments/corporations.

Each stakeholder, from the everyday user/co-creator to the government and corporate official, brings their unique history, intersectionality, expertise, etc., to bear, amplifying the influencing social and technical structures of the digital technologies around us. The personal and social aspects thereby shape the code, software, and information — as well as the physical electronics on which the code, software, and information reside. At the same time, the code, software, information, and physical structure shape the individuals and social structures making use of those technologies. Given this amplification and mutual shaping of the sociotechnical artifacts and the overarching systems, what literacies are required for us to move from passive consumers to active innovators-in-use of digital technologies?

Community Inquiry as the Basis for Digital Literacy Radically Reconsidered

The seven essential skills of digital literacy include information skills, cognitive skills, socio-emotional skills, application skills, progressive community [inter]action skills, and critical social + technical skills

Literacy is a set of competencies and knowledge within a certain domain. Digital literacy, then, is literacy within the realm of digital information and communication technologies. Summarizing a variety of definitions regarding digital literacy and related computational thinking, this set of competencies includes:

  • Technical skills: The ability to appropriately select and effectively use a range of technologies.
  • Information skills: The ability to seek, evaluate, interpret, and apply relevant and trustworthy information across multiple media.
  • Cognitive skills: The ability to logically analyze and organize problems in ways that allow use of digital and other tools to help solve them and to generalize new processes to other problems.
  • Socio-emotional skills: The ability to communicate and collaborate with others, along with the personal confidence, persistence, and tolerance needed to tackle complex, ambiguous, and open-ended problems.
  • Application skills: The ability to integrate the above skills into our everyday experiences in order to advance our professional, personal, and civic interests and responsibilities.

If we are to assure active participation in civic society and meaningful, diverse and inclusive contributions to vibrant, informed, and engaged community, it is essential to add the social justice-oriented  progressive community [inter]action and critical social + technical skills to these other five points.

  • The critical social + technical skills are brought forward as part of person- and community-centered deliberative dialogue processes using critical research paradigms, pedagogies, and abductive reasoning in combination with each of the five commonly considered digital literacy skills listed above.
  • Progressive community [inter]action skills are simultaneously used in combination with the starting five digital literacy skills by advancing our ability to work together in communities of inquiry that make continued use of collective leadership, functional diversity, members’ capability sets and freedom of choice to better achieve valued beings and doings, community cultural wealth, and care work and ethics.

Whether as part of preprofessional and professional development of library and information management workers, or as part of programming offered by these professionals, a radical reconsideration of digital literacy is essential if we are to effectively use sociotechnical products to amplify human forces which advance human and community development. This social-forward approach to digital literacy training doesn’t negate learning about the nuts and bolts of the hardware and software. It instead works to advance our critical social + technical skills so as to situate such learning within the individual and group goals and values.

A Person-Centered Approach to Digital Literacy


  • Meet with stakeholders to understand what creative works participants would like to do and what digital technologies might be needed to do them.
  • Incorporate digital literacy training as infill into projects as needed.
  • Include exercises exploring all dimensions of socio-technical artifacts.
  • Intersperse discussion and critical reflection with hands-on activities to bring to the fore participants’ human and social expertise to complement hardware and software skills development.


  • Achieve the creative works as determined by participants during stakeholder meetings.
  • Advance participants’ capability set (the increased existence, sense, exercise, and achievement of choice).
  • Increase participant’s ability to select and appropriate strategies/technologies that align with their values and goals.
  • Counter the dehumanizing impacts of digital technologies.
  • Work towards the essential outcome of more resilient, inclusive, and just communities.


Technology is shaped by and shapes society. From this starting point, we posit that:

  • The social, cultural, historical, economic, and political values and practices of stakeholders at each point in an artifact’s life cycle tend to become embedded within that artifact.
  • There are exclusionary social structures, some of which we actively — even if unintentionally — reinforce through our choices and actions regarding technology creation and use.
  • Digital literacy without a critical and sociotechnical perspective is at risk of fostering magical thinking and technological utopianism.
  • A liberative approach to technology requires lived and academic expertise within multiple domains, including hardware, software, human, community, social, cultural, historical, political, and economic.

Key Takeaways

  • Those of us with technical expertise may enter into an engagement as digital literacy instructors, but we also need to be willing learners if we are to understand the exclusionary social structures embedded within sociotechnical artifacts and thereby champion justice.
  • The digitally excluded and participants from the margins of society may enter into digital literacy training as learners, but also bring essential sociotechnical expertise and teaching to communities of inquiry.
  • Difference is not just a nicety, but an essential resource in building more resilient, inclusive, and just communities.

Advancing digital inclusion, equity, and literacy often presents unique information needs and potentially burdensome financial, human, and infrastructure challenges. Partnerships among stakeholders, including those from the information sciences and information management, often serve at the front lines to mitigate these challenges. But how do we best help organizations build the capacity to meet the information needs of communities? In what ways can we develop 21st century skills to foster individual, social, and economic development? How can we integrate standards and frameworks such as collective leadership, community inquiry, action-reflection cycles, information seeking, studio-based learning and design thinking, collaborative programming and computational thinking, and creativity, play, and tinkering into the partnership process?

Lesson Plan

While the focus of the technical chapter, “Electronic Components in Series,” is on how we can reuse the LEDs and resistors in combination with momentary switch push buttons, it is important for us to also continually reflect on the social aspects of these sociotechnical artifacts. Our educational and professional systems are built so as to often separate these two aspects. How can we work together in this session and in each of the following sessions to identify ways in which mutual shaping and amplification of sociotechnical artifacts has happened or is happening with this moment? How are we working to further the gendering of the artifacts? How are we working to problematize these artifacts so as to advance a more person-centered approach?

Essential Resources:

  • Toyama, Kentaro. “TEDxTokyo – Kentaro Toyama.” YouTube, May 10, 2010.[4]
  • Oxford Internet Institute. “OII Awards 2018: In Conversation with Judy Wajcman.” YouTube, November 26, 2019.
  • Bruce, Bertram C., Andee Rubin, and Junghyun An. “Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems.” In Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, edited by Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor, 2: 685–98. Information Science Reference. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009.
  • UIL UNESCO. “Learning Cities and Education for Sustainable Development.” YouTube, December 11, 2018.

Additional Resources:

Professional Journal Reflections:

  1. How would you have described the terms digital technology, digital literacy, and digital innovation prior to reading this chapter and related resources? What are some of the contexts leading you to these initial descriptions?
  2. What are some of the different descriptions of the terms that come forward through the reading of this chapter and related essential resources? What are some of the contexts shaping the authors of these descriptions, and the contexts shaping your understanding of their descriptions?
  3. What are some of the different ways you’ve learned about networks, information systems, and digital technologies as part of your lived history? How has that influenced your sharing of knowledge and best practices with others? How might we work together throughout this book to teach and learn together about systems in ways that foster sustainable development?
  4. From your lived experiences and reading of text and context coming into the reading of the book and in your works so far through the book, in what ways have deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, and/or abductive reasoning played a role in shaping the creation and marketing of electronic technology around you? Your selection, use, and innovation-in-use of that technology?

  1. Judy Wajcman, “Feminist Theories of Technology,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 143–52.
  2. Bertram Bruce, Andee Rubin, and Junghyun An, “Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems,” in Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, eds. Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor, Information Science Reference (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009), 2:685–98.
  3. Gerhard Fischer and Thomas Herrmann, “Socio-Technical Systems: A Meta-Design Perspective,” International Journal for Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development 3, no. 1 (2011): 1–33. Colin Rhinesmith and Martin Wolske, “Community Informatics Studio: A Conceptual Framework,” in CIRN Community Informatics Conference: “Challenges and Solutions,” Prato, Italy: Centre for Community and Social Informatics, Faculty of IT, Monash University, 2014.
  4. TED Talks are licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.


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A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology Copyright © 2020 by Copyright © 2020 Martin Wolske. Copyright “Ideating and Iterating Code: Scratch Example” © 2020 Betty Bayer and Stephanie Shallcross. Copyright “Introducing the Unix Command Line” © 2020 Martin Wolske, Dinesh Rathi, Henry Grob, and Vandana Singh. Copyright “Security and Privacy” © 2020 Sara Rasmussen. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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