Digital literacy: what is it?

Digital literacy and what it is; the ways in which it is passed on and the implications that arise from it, is undoubtedly THE topic that keeps me going since the start of my professional career.

But what is digital literacy? I will try to answer this first essential question with the aim of keeping things simple. May the experts forgive my shortcuts, simplifications and anything else I’ve forgotten!

Are you interested in my digital literacy conferences?

This article forms part of a module on digital literacy (in French) that I gave between February and April 2018 to 1st year Masters students at the ILERI international relations school. I have since offered these courses within conferences or as workshops (see for example the SNCF or Centre-Val de Loire conferences). Please do contact me if you are interested in these workshops.

Foreword : fussing over definitions

As somebody who is neither a university lecturer nor a researcher, but who has previously participated in several conferences and scientific round-table discussions, I have often been surprised by the emphasis that participants were able to place on simple definitions. Even if that meant sometimes spending more time on the disagreements they had about the definition than on the content of the topic.

It was through immersing myself in the world of digital and through getting into its details that I realised that, in order to speak and understand each other, and especially in order to convey what you know, it was indeed important to share the same definitions and the same references. As words have a meaning, maintaining ambiguity over the words amounts to the subject matter itself becoming blurred. I do however argue that certain controversies over definitions are excessive, particularly within public lectures.

The term numerical, which is especially polysemous, is something that is difficult to define. According to the Larousse dictionary, something is numeric if it “is to do with numbers, can be done with numbers, or is represented by a number”, but also “can be valued in numbers, or be translated into numbers”. We are therefore talking about numerical calculations, numerical tables, numerical analysis, or even numerical superiority. That revolves around numbers, which is currently nothing like the general idea we have : the electricity which allows digital to work, screens, cables or the computer. And of course, nothing to do with the digital world in which we are living.

The numerical and the computational

Where the numerical comes into contact with computing is when data-processing tools start to relay information in the form of numbers (and in particular the 0s and 1s within binary language). On this topic, I recommend a definition from the Futura Sciences website :

The progresses of information and communication technologies are mainly based upon a fundamental technical innovation : digitalisation. In traditional systems – known as analogue – signals (radio, televisions, etc.) are carried in the form of continuous electric waves. With digitalisation, these signals are coded as series of numbers, which are themselves often represented in a binary system by groups of 0s and 1s.  The signal is then made up of a discontinuous set of numbers : it has become a computational file.

L’attribut alt de cette image est vide, son nom de fichier est CAN__CNA-1024x250.png.
Convertisseur Analogique Numérique et Convertisseur Numérique Analogique (Source)

If digitalisation has become so important, it is because it has enabled numerous practical advances in the transfer of electronic data, and in particular for the compression of data (think of an MP3 to listen to music for example, but also the MP4 for videos!)

Without getting too technical, people do indeed understand that digital therefore describes all systems and devices which represent their data in the form of numbers, which is the case for the majority of our things stocking and carrying information nowadays! Cameras, smartphones, central processing units, computer screens, modern televisions, but also the Internet, cables, routers… all are digital tools and systems. That is why for an expert it is very difficult to speak “about digital” and to say “digital”. Which digital are you talking about ?

Numerical or digital ?

We have just seen where the term numerical came from. It so happens that the English (and picked up by more and more of the French, especially within start-up communities and innovative companies) use the term “digital”. What does it mean ?

“Digital” comes from the word “digitus” and thus refers to what can be done with fingers. The word “digit” (chiffre in French) appeared in the English language because the first calculations were done using fingers, followed by the word “digital” (that which uses numbers).

As we can see, neither numerical nor digital have kept their initial meaning. Still today they are terms which allude to quite different things, and experts hate when we get them mixed up. It has to be recognised that using them tends to make them more and more synonymous.

What does digital represent today?

After computers and then the Internet became mainstream, digital ended up going beyond the scientific and technical spheres it came from in order to become a “total social fact” (1) in line with the concept put forward by Marcel Mauss because these technologies transform the whole of society and all its institutions” (Jean-François Cerisier, Professor of Information and Communication Science)

I personally think that digital literacy is understood through a prism involving several disciplines, including history, economics, social behaviour, politics and geopolitics. But we could add to that technology, ethics, philosophy, humanities, etc. As a lot of experts say who are interested in it, digital is a new paradigm.  

This drawing was made by an adult

The history of digital

In order to understand digital, one has to understand the context in which computing, telecommunications, the Internet and the web were born. Among other things, you have to seriously study history.

You have to revisit the technological advances which sped up from the end of the 19th century, and go back to the heart of the wars of the 20th century (in particular the Second World War and the Cold War). One has to understand that originally the only concrete aim of computing was to calculate and to decipher. This meant calculating the targets of artillery fire, calculating weather forecasts (mainly for military objectives initially), carrying out physical simulations (simulating the explosion of a nuclear weapon for example), etc.

ENIAC, one of the first electronic general-purpose digital computer

One has to remember that originally, the Internet was born out of simple military necessity, namely having control of a distributed command network which would resist a nuclear attack, precisely because each computer within the network would be autonomous, and would thus be able to respond. It is in this context that the American military research agency financed researchers and engineers in order to come up with this network, which would become ARPANET in 1969. This network then became a world of researchers and passionate, altruistic computer specialists who advocated an open and distributed Internet (vs a centralised or decentralised version of it), shared code, and universal access to knowledge before becoming the network that we know today which has undergone many changes.

I found this exercise in mental forecasting fascinating, but it wasn’t easy. So can you imagine what it represents for a young person today who goes to university, who is 18 years old, and who has never lived without the web (invented in 1991), without Google (1998), without 3G or Facebook (2004), and without a smartphone (the iPhone was introduced in 2007) ?

What is equally important in this history of digital is that, from tools which were above all technological inventions (the calculator, then the computer) and which had a subject field attached to them, computer science, digital ended up mutating and becoming a cultural and social phenomenon. Here is how Catherine Becchetti-Bizot – the general inspector of the French Department of Education – defined digital in a report from 2017 :

“Digital is not only a technological revolution, as the inventions of writing and printing were revolutions in their time. It is also a cultural and social trend which is penetrating the most common acts of our lives and our perceptions of the world : our perception of space and time, our relationships with other people, our ways of thinking, imagining and creating, the ways that we work and our access to skills, as well as our methods of developing and sharing knowledge.”

Digital and the economy

When it became mainstream and it got out of prestigious universities and the largest companies at the end of the 1990s, digital rapidly transformed the existing economy by “digitalising” it (the printing press, business, etc.). At the same time, it created a new economy – the economy of digital, the most notable online platforms of which are the already well-known and unavoidable GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), but there are equally a lot of other companies that are gravitating around digital and the Internet; web hosting companies, (1and1, OVH), software publishers (Salesforce, SAP, Oracle), telephone and computer manufacturers (Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi), and many more.

Today, we can no longer talk about digital without talking about the economic challenges and the leading role that these companies have taken in what the Internet has become, the development of algorithms in the era of big data and artificial intelligence.

Furthermore, digital, through the use of automation and robotisation in particular, is shaking up and casting doubt on many occupations at an accelerated pace, and thus asks questions about the very future of work: what will be the jobs of tomorrow? How can we prepare for them ? What will the economy of tomorrow look like? Not everything is yet set in stone and it is precisely up to us to regain control over our destinies on these issues.

Photo by Daniel Gzz on Unsplash

Digital and society

Digital is disrupting and transforming all of our social behaviours, all of our habits and all of the ways we go about things. However, sociological studies (2) show that it is rarely the reason behind the disruption but is more the factor which exacerbates it.

Digital is rarely the reason behind a breakdown in social norms but is more a factor which exacerbates it.

That is an important fact to understand when we today see the dimension that certain debates about digital are taking. We could mention the influence of ‘screens’ on children, the scourge of cyberbullying, addiction to video games, I could go on. In order to tackle these social issues, once again it is necessary to be equipped with good knowledge about digital.

In any event, digital has shaken up our way of finding out about things, gaining knowledge, socialising, campaigning, consuming, and working. As Dominique Boullier says in his work, ‘The Sociology of Digital’:

“It is becoming difficult to not recreate the sociology across all sectors, as digital is unique in that it is ‘pervasive’, in other words it penetrates all of our activities from the more personal to the more public.” 

Digital and politics/geopolitics

From their beginnings, computing, telecommunications, and the building of the Internet have been the target of multiple political choices, and already a few struggles. The choice to build a distributed network, an open code, network infrastructures (3) – all of these were political choices.

When the Internet became mainstream and the economic giants emerged, little by little a kind of ‘subpolitics’ was created, according to the terms used by Dominique Boullier (see the bibliography). This subpolitics decides the directions of travel taken by the web without democratic oversight, since our elected representatives are excluded from the thinking and decision-making processes. The challenges posed by digital are today so complex that they even ask the question as to whether our elected representatives have the necessary competence to answer them.

The NSA spies on us by connecting directly to the underwater cables: nice!

Lastly, digital has become a huge geopolitical challenge. We immediately think of the clashes of influence, or even of the attempts to manipulate that take place on social media. Brexit or the American election in 2016 are recent examples of this. Digital is also a military and intelligence issue : cyber attacks are multiplying against countries and certain sensitive infrastructures. In turn, intelligence agencies themselves are very active too, as Edward Snowden revealed among others. Digital is finally an issue of power. You only need to see how certain countries are racing over artificial intelligence for example, but also the confrontation which is being set up between the American GAFAM companies on one side and the Asian BATX companies on the other, with Europe keeping score in the middle (or picking up the balls, that’s up to you!).


As I’m sure you have understood, this introductory article was only one way of illustrating the deeply multifaceted aspect of digital. Others have said it before me, but like them I would argue that digital is a new paradigm.

Equipping oneself with knowledge about digital means starting by understanding this aspect and broadening its vision. We can no longer tackle digital uniquely from a technical point of view without talking about the ethical issues. Or talk about geopolitical issues if we have not worked out the sociotechnical issues.

As it the case with any popularisation of a complex subject, choices about what to simplify will inevitably have to be made, which will offend the experts. But especially as certain topics are all the same very technical, that seems to me to be essential.

I will conclude by saying that preparing these lessons has reinforced my belief further that every citizen should receive this type of teaching:

A good knowledge of digital, a subset of general knowledge, is an absolute necessity in order to carry out one’s position as a citizen in a society that is de facto digital today.

Are you interested in my digital literacy courses?

They’re available under Creative Commons licence on this page (in French, but I can translate them).

Are you interested in a conference on digital literacy?

I have adapted my courses to a conference format (for example the SNCF conference). If you are interested, please do contact me.


(1)  The total social fact is a methodological tool and is a concept from social sciences; namely anthropology and sociology, devised by Marcel Mauss. The principle behind this tool is to let the subject being studied be revealed on its own, in other words it is the individual that gives meaning to its application and not the researcher.

(2) Referenced in particular within the excellent work ‘The Sociology of Digital’ (Sociologie du Numérique) by Dominique Boullier.

(3) An asymmetrical network using ADSL for example, which was more advantageous to the downstream rate (download) than the upstream rate (upload), effectively leading to a philosophy of consumption of the web over one of creating and sharing.

(4) The BATX companies are the four large Asian companies in the digital sector: Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi.

Photo by Giu Vicente on Unsplash

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