Who broke the Internet? And who can fix it? Digital literacies in the age of the algorithm


This talk explores the challenges involved in teaching language and literacy at a time of ‘always on’ digitally-mediated communication in which meaning-making is shared between humans and algorithms, and in which the everyday texts people get to read and the everyday social interactions they get to have are to a large degree engineered in order to maximize the profits of corporations. I begin with an overview of the consequences that these new infrastructures of communication have had on our societies, focusing on issues of truth (and ‘post-truth’), tribalism, linguistic toxicity, ubiquitous surveillance, and the erosion of human agency (Jones, forthcoming). I then examine ways in which tools from Applied Linguistics, especially Pragmatics, can be used to help learners develop new practices of inferencing and critical reading to cope with the complex communicative landscapes in which they now operate (Jones 2019, 2020). My main argument, however, will be that traditional approaches to literacy studies that shift the burden of criticality and ‘self-protection’ to individuals is not sufficient for this moment. Teaching digital literacies in the age of the algorithm will require that we equip learners not just with ways to critically interrogate texts and interactions, but also with the tools to critically interrogate the technological and economic circumstances that make these texts and interactions possible. It will also require a view of literacy and literacy instruction that goes beyond individual teachers and learners to include all sectors of society, including policy makers and legislators, engineers and designers, capitalists and activists, coming together to create opportunities for dialogue and debate about the conditions for human communication in a ‘post-human’ world and the kinds of societies these conditions make possible. 


Rodney H. Jones is Professor of Sociolinguistics and Head of the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading. He has published widely in the areas of digital literacies, mediated discourse analysis, and language and creativity. His most recent books and edited collections include Language and Media (Routledge 2020, with Sylvia Jaworska and Erhan Aslan), Viral Discourse (ed.)(Cambridge University Press, 2020), and Understanding Digital Literacies 2nd edition (Routledge 2021, with Christoph Hafner). He is currently writing a book entitled Innovations and challenges in digital literacies (Routledge). 

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