The Digital Cognition Project - Towards A New Model Of Digital Inclusion Based On Living Well With Technology

09 Jan 2018 |Written by Adam Micklethwaite


Digital skills is a hot topic right now, and rightly so. Influential reports from McKinsey, the RSA and others have highlighted the importance of digital skills for the future of work, and debate continues about the impact of AI and robots on jobs. Alongside this, there is a continuing concern about the flow of young people into tech roles and the extent to which education is preparing them to operate in a digital world.

But the idea of 'skill' doesn't capture everything about a person's relationship with technology.

As well as being able to carry out a task digitally, we have to want to do that task, know how doing the task will affect us, and be willing and able to adapt if the way we need to do the task changes. In other words, we have intention, expectation, curiosity, resilience and a host of other behaviours and qualities alongside the skill itself.

The same is true whatever skill we look at: making a cup of tea, riding a bike, or playing Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

The even broader picture is that as humans we have a set of cognitive programmes that shape when and how we act. They legitimise and trigger action, protect us from harm, and support us to develop. Hardwired into our brains, they are what allows us to act skilfully in the world.

I think this is a big issue for technology. As a human creation, its pace of change continues to be unprecedented; and it is continually throwing down new challenges that need to be debated and addressed.

Just as children develop adaptive behaviours that allow them to function well in the world and with others, my hypothesis is that young people and adults can develop digitally adaptive behaviours that allow them to act well in the digital world.

The idea is relevant to both our personal lives, such as how children can cope with the absence of stopping cues in social media that can encourage passive consumption; and the future of work, for example how 'emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility' will help humans to 'augment robots rather than be replaced by them'.

The (really) big idea is how we can, as humans, live well with technology so that it maximises our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us. Can we future proof our brains so that we make technology work for us, and not the other way around?

There is a wealth of important thinking about digital and society going on right now, such as the work on Digital Understanding by doteveryone, which focuses on moral/ethical issues and responsibilities around digital and society. We are also seeing public debate evolve about our relationship with technology: witness the acknowledgement from Facebook that its platform can pose a risk to mental health.

But the idea of digitally adaptive behaviour starts from a different place, focusing on the inner life of the mind and how cognition can shape our relationship with technology, from taking better breaks from your screen to how automation can free up our time to be more creative. It also has a focus on the positive side of tech and how it can work for the personal and greater good. There are some parallels in the social and economic consequences of the Power to Create idea set out by the RSA.

Building on the hypothesis, I have a hunch that the relationship-based community model of digital inclusion we see in Online Centres across the UK - which develops people in so many non-digital ways, including helping them achieve specific outcomes such as reconnecting with family, finding a job, and volunteering for the first time, as well as improvements in confidence, social connections and health outcomes - could be an effective way of developing digitally adaptive behaviours.

At Good Things Foundation we have plenty of circumstantial evidence for this, but we haven't yet done a deep dive empirical investigation testing to what extent it's true. For example, it seems evident that taking the plunge into digital for the first time requires an 'adaptive leap', and this could start a positive chain reaction that supports other adaptive behaviours to develop.

Despite recent progress, the extent of digital inclusion in the UK continues to be a national scandal and a matter of social justice. We need to continue helping people gain the confidence to go online, and the skills they need to thrive in the digital world. But understanding how humans can live well with technology, and helping them to do so, is an even bigger issue: and my contention is that we need to be doing both.

So I'm interested in working with people and organisations that want to investigate models of digitally adaptive behaviour - initially using the Online Centres Network as a practical platform for behavioural experiments, but potentially going beyond this. It's about inclusion, equality, opportunity and wellbeing - all things we strive for at Good Things Foundation.

Involving digital inclusion practitioners, think tanks, behavioural researchers, tech firms and cognitive neuroscientists, we could kick-start a stream of research that helps design the digital inclusion models of the future. The issues are complex and difficult - and seem globally significant - but by working together we have the opportunity to redefine what digital inclusion means and how we make it happen.