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S08 E01 – Introduction

In this episode, Doug, Laura and Ian O’Byrne, an assistant professor of Literacy Education at the College of Charleston, talk about themes such as race, gender, and AI.


  • Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield
  • Children of Time series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Find all of our guests’ reading recommendations at our The Tao of WAO book club.


Important note: this is a lightly-edited AI transcription of the conversation. If you require verbatim quotations, please double-check against the audio!

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:22] Welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society, and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I’m Laura Hilliger.

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:33] And I’m Doug Belshaw. This podcast season is currently partially unfunded. You can support this podcast and other we are open projects and products at

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:46] So this season, we’re very excited to be joined by Ian O’Byrne, an educator, researcher, speaker, learner. Ian is the assistant of assistant professor of Literacy Education at the College of Charleston, and was a very important contributor back in the day to Mozilla’s web literacy work. So Ian and Doug and I have known each other for a really long time. Welcome, Ian.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:01:15] Hey, everybody. Thanks for having me.

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:18] So we’re focusing this season specifically on navigating the future of media and information literacy. And it’s a collaborative project for the Journal of Media Literacy. Now, that sounds very academic, but before you switch off, fear not, we’re going to be gorrila academics, which means that instead of studying primates, we’re going to be having a wide ranging series of conversations about themes such as race, gender, and AI. But maybe let’s start with the question that we ask all guests. Ian, what’s your favourite book?

Ian O’Byrne: [00:01:53] I just finished reading Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield at the recommendation of the two of you. Thought it was wonderful. Hit a bunch of the regular themes that we usually see, but the series that I am most, the books that I’m most into right now are the Children of Time series, books by Tchaikovsky, uh, sci fi, uh, wonderful trilogy of books about the future, sci fi technology, all that. So just finished the second book in the in the trilogy as well. So, uh, see a lot of strangely, a lot of parallels between sci fi futurescape with spiders and octopi and our talk about media information literacy.

Doug Belshaw: [00:02:45] Yeah. I was going to ask you about the overlap between those two things, because there’s definitely, there’s definitely like I’ve tried all different genres and stuff and I really can’t get into anything like fantasy or sci fi. Um, but the people who are into those things seem to have very creative, fertile minds who can think about problems in the future in new and interesting ways. And so what are, what are those overlaps that you see?

Ian O’Byrne: [00:03:10] It’s interesting thinking about what the future might possibly look like. Um, a lot of times you’ll see, you know, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes. And so I think there’s times that you’ll have an event happen in a sci fi book, and then something will happen in your own life, or you’ll see something come up in the world and you’ll say, well, that’s really interesting. That feels like we’re there. As a parallel, I remember reading Ready Player One. I’m now reading it with my with our eighth grader. Um, and so you would read Ready Player One and you would say, well, that’s that’ll never, ever happen. And then the next week, you see Microsoft has the hollow lens event or you have, you know, you see meta coming out with like Oculus. And so it’s interesting where sci fi authors, fantasy authors sometimes can allow us to put up a mirror to society and see it’s interesting they believe could happen.

Doug Belshaw: [00:04:09] It’s interesting you mentioned Ready Player One. So I say that I don’t read those kinds of books. That’s one of the rare ones that I have read, because my son recommended so highly and saw was it the film or TV adaptation of it? And the thing that stuck out stuck with me from Ready Player One. Was that the main character? Um. At some point is allowed on the networks, like he’s not allowed on the networks until a particular time. And even just the mention of of the networks being plural. I remember the time that I read that I was still a heavy Twitter user, but kind of Mastodon, The Fediverse was kind of coming along and just reading about the plurality of networks in that book at the start of it made me think, yeah, in the future, obviously there’s going to be lots of different networks because we’re still in the very early times of social networks and social media, and so there’ll be lots of different networks and stuff, and lo and behold, it’s been, what, six years, seven years since I read that book. And we’re now in a world I was reading something today about how it’s not just you. There’s not as many people posting on social media anymore because what’s taken its place loads of little dark web, not dark web, dark forest kind of things of chat and slacks and everything like that. It’s become more mature, more diverse, that kind of thing. It’s fascinating.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:05:33] Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to think about, you know, what we do and why we do it, what the future might look like and where our identity and our data ultimately will go. And so I think sci fi provides us, provides me an opportunity to think about possible futures. You know, when we think about, you know, when we write pieces that are about futures and we write pieces about what we could or should do, I think it’s a good opportunity to think through, you know, all eventualities and whether we like them or not. A lot of times we see these dystopian landscapes, and the fear is, how do we make sure that we don’t get there? You know, I think about my children first as they become more digital, as they become more entrenched in these societies and think about surveillance technology at their school or apps they sign up for, or should I allow them to get on social media or not? Um, you know, and I say that as I notice that I share less online. Um, you know, and I think through why that might be true.

Laura Hilliger: [00:06:48] Well, Ian, do you want to maybe talk a little bit about what we’re planning on doing this season and maybe sort of set up the how? How did you get involved with the Journal for Media Literacy? Why did you want to respond to this particular call for proposals? And yeah, and just a little bit of background about how it is that we decided to do an entire series on navigating the futures of literacies.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:07:17] Absolutely. So a call for proposals came out from some collective friends of ours, Spencer Brayton and Natasha Casey. I have interacted with the two of them multiple times online, um, mostly through media literacy, information literacy. Um, and so I’ve interacted with them several times. I don’t think I’ve ever met them face to face. Um, but they put out a call, a special issue for the Journal of Media Literacy that was looking for. Some sort of guidance or insight into these overlapping frameworks and cross-disciplinary fields that might provide an easy way for us to understand what the intersection of these fields might look like. So what does it look like for education? What does it look like for, you know, library media faculty? What does it look like for the average kid sitting in the classroom? For the classroom teacher, what does the future look like as we think about where we might head? And so I saw that pop up. And then at the same time, Doug sent me an email saying he also got the message. And so, you know, we were both thinking about the possibility of doing this. So on one hand, um, there’s just the straight up, we have an opportunity to work together. Anytime I have an opportunity to work with the two of you, I immediately say, yes. Um, and so there’s the opportunity to work with the two of you and, you know, think deeply about what this might look like. Um, but then at the same time, the one of the the struggles that I have as an academic is, at the end of the day, this will become a publication in a journal. No offence to the journal Media Literacy, no offence to Spencer, no offence to Natasha. But one of the struggles that I have as an academic, as an educator, as a digitally literate educator, is a lot of times I’m speaking to my own communities and so I publish in journals, I publish and I write in a way that is not approachable, is not accessible for regular individuals. Um, and so we’re always I’m always trying to figure out how do I make my materials more open, more accessible, more approachable. And so one of the things I really like is that we’re going to try and carve out an open research project and an open research, open research publication, and there’s not a lot of guidance in that. And so what we’re trying to do is conduct interviews, conduct focus groups, do the regular work of literature reviews and writing and thinking and analysis and data collection, but do as much of this as possible openly online. So is there a way for us to reach out to experts in the field and have great critical, crucial discussions and share those so that other people can sort of like check our notes and then, you know, try and make their own, come to their own conclusions as to what they see the future possibly looking like. Um, so it’s basically an opportunity to, to think critically about these discussions, work with the two of you, expand my thoughts and horizons, but then also trying carve out new, possible different novel ways of of production and publication and sharing.

Doug Belshaw: [00:10:51] I think it’s probably worth saying as well. You are an academic. This is your field of study. But as well as being random people on the internet, Laura and I did do some postgraduate study in this area. So like we’re not entirely new to this. Um, that so.

Laura Hilliger: [00:11:09] I try to forget about that. But.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:11:13] There’s also a lot of commonalities, though. I mean, this is not our first rodeo. You know, a lot of the the topics in this come from work that, as Laura indicated earlier, from the people that should not be named. You know, there’s work that we did earlier that covered a lot of these areas. So it’s interesting to reflect back and say, okay, what has changed or what has not changed since, you know, a lot of that earlier work that we did together.

Doug Belshaw: [00:11:40] Yeah. So maybe let’s let’s dig into that the later on, the rest of this series is going to be us digging into things around like race and gender and AI and that kind of stuff. And then we’ll come back at the end to to find out what we discovered and do another one of these episodes with the three of us. But not everyone is an educator who listens to this. Not everyone has knowledge about what kind of new literacies are and why there’s multiple terms and things. And George Orwell famously said, who controls the past, controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past. So maybe we should look into some current definitions or just working definitions of things like media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, that kind of stuff. Why are there so many different terms where where’s that come from?

Ian O’Byrne: [00:12:33] One of the things a colleague of mine from Australia that is in this same field that’s in digital literacy, once asked the question, why do you Americans like to name everything? And I think it is a fundamental flaw. Um, one of the things so in my background, I was a researcher and a grad student, a doc student at the New Literacies Research Lab many years ago. We were identifying, researching, describing online reading comprehension and slowly built up the field of new literacies. I have worked in multiliteracies. I’ve worked in digital literacy, digital literacy, together with all of you. We worked on framing the web literacy model. And so and most recently, I helped the National Council of Teachers of English write the digital literacy guidelines or framework. And so I think that for me, it’s basically we recognise that the internet is a dominant text of our generation, and we recognise that the primary way that we read, write, communicate, socialise, participate, interact with other human beings is, is through the internet. We see a lot of individuals. My next door neighbour has far more in common with other people online, in various chat groups and online spaces than they do with me, and so we’re moving more to a globally networked society and culture. Um, and so when I think about what it means to be digitally literate or web literate, I like to keep it simple. If you can identify ways to and guide youth, and if they can find ways to read, write, communicate, use the internet ethically, credibly, authentically, then you’re, you’re being digitally literate. You are being web literate. Um, there are beautiful differences in the way that the different components or theoretical perspectives interact. They’re, they’re wonderfully, you know, rich areas of of research and literature and theory. Um, but my I think a lot of times as academics and educators, we sort of get stuck in those theories and we forget about regular human beings that are online. So we’re pontificating and looking and, and, you know, and talking to ourselves while we see a lot of the horrific things happening online. And so for me, it’s using the internet to read, write, communicate, participate, connect with other human beings.

Doug Belshaw: [00:15:26] And a lot of people when they’re kind of maybe new to this area, see all this plethora of terms and say, why don’t we just call it all literacy?

Ian O’Byrne: [00:15:37] Yeah, that happens a lot. That’s, um. You know, I can easily say that. Hey, there is no need for these different areas. A lot of the when I say web literacy or new literacy as opposed to digital literacy, what I’m doing is signalling to people in my field that I know what you’re talking about. I’m in your field, but in every single instance, in every single area where I’ve worked on these frameworks and these definitions and these guidelines, every single time I have and other people on the team and then other people that we canvas say, why do you call it? Why is it not just literacy? Why do you have to put the qualifier in of digital into that? And I agree, um, you know, our most of our world is entirely digital now. Um, I think there is the, there is the opportunity to just call it literacy. Um, you know, and literacy means something. I think we put literacy or literate on top of something else, and then all of a sudden we want it to be new. But, you know, I think that if we think about what it means to be literate, 99% of that right now is evolving the internet and digital tools and network contexts.

Doug Belshaw: [00:16:56] Um, one of our contacts, friends, collaborators Greg Mcverry, a few years ago sent me a book, a photograph of a book which was vegetable literacy, um, which was hilarious, like vegetable literacy. But I’ve thought a lot about this, as I’m sure you too have. Like, why do people want to prepend or append a word to literacy? And I think it’s a couple of things. First of all, if you stand up and say that you want to redefine what literacy means, that’s quite a big statement to be making by yourself. Like that’s a that’s a big deal. And but it is a power move. Like if you say like, hey, I’m going to find what literacy is. What you’re saying is like, I’m going to define what you should be paying attention to and what you shouldn’t be paying attention to. So if you’re a big tech company and you’re defining what AI literacy is, you’re going to define it in response to your products and the way that you see society and and what’s beholden to your shareholders. If you’re an academic, you’re going to define it slightly differently. If you’re on a different part of the world, you’re going to define it differently. So I’m really looking forward to digging into some of those things with some of the people we’re going to be talking to in subsequent episodes.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:18:12] Yeah, most definitely. There’s there is power in literacy at all times and there’s definitely power in digital literacy. We have to ask questions about who has that power. You know, as someone that has, you know, identified, helped, identified online reading comprehension as someone that worked with the two of you and others on what it means to be web literate. It’s really interesting to see who really controls the power and when the power. The gatekeepers determine that that’s important and when it’s not, and when they move on. And so one of the things that we need to keep in mind in this exploration is, is, is power. There’s a lot of discussions about truth and trust, but at the end of the day, it might always just come down to power. And are we seeing, you know, do we have any power in this model? Do the educators to the people that understand it, even weirdos like me that read about and write about and think about technology a bit too much? Do I have any power in any of this, or is it really the developers, the companies, the corporations? Do they ultimately have all the power?

Laura Hilliger: [00:19:25] I am actually pretty excited about this series and the way that we are thinking about framing it, which is to put the experience of our own literacies under a magnifying glass and have a conversation around the way that we use technology, the way that the experts that we’ll be talking to use technology and trying to connect that to every like everyday life, quote unquote, normal technology uses and exploring through the lens of things that that we do with our tech nowadays that, you know, that we didn’t used to do in the same way before, and how how that technology is sort of influencing our behaviours and what we’re actually seeing in terms of how our literacies are developing or shifting or changing, because I think the if we would have taken a look at the original definition, 1974 information literacy, it was a very different description of what we might think of the information literacy today. And so I’m looking forward to actually learning about what I really think about literacies today versus what I thought about them when I wrote my master’s thesis. Longer ago than I am going to say on this microphone podcast.

Doug Belshaw: [00:20:44] Well, yeah. Likewise, I’m looking forward to finding out stuff that. So I submitted my doctoral thesis in 2011 and graduate in 2012. Started the web literacy work, finished that in 20 1415, published that e-book and stuff. And I’ve kind of kept up to it with things to an extent, but not as obviously as much as as Ian. And what’s happened since 2015 is we’ve had Black Lives Matter and MeToo and like a whole like reawakening because of things like Covid, because of the internet connecting people together. So some of the things that we’re digging into, um, are things that really didn’t feature very much in my, my work on new literacies back in the day. So things like I not mentioned at all, I don’t think, in my thesis. Um, things to do with gender and race, to my shame. Not really in there at all either. So this is going to be fascinating for me, and I’m really looking forward to to finding the right people for us to to ask hard questions, to guess.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:21:51] And one of the tricks is that, you know, there’s certain, you know, rules of the road as we conduct this exploration. And one of those is there’s no road, there’s no rules, there’s no map, there’s no guidance to get there. One of the other things to keep in mind is that, you know, for me, I’ve already referenced this twice in this discussion is that a lot of my thinking will come back to youth. It’ll come back to my kids specifically, but also youth in general. You know, the the middle schoolers, the elementary kids, the kids in early childhood down the street from me. Um, because I generally believe that adults don’t really know how to use these digital spaces. A lot of education right now is set up to prepare kids to go out on Twitter or be on Facebook and stuff like that, and I’m far more interested in looking at what youth are doing and talking to youth. Um, we also one of the things that I’ve been trying to do is to just, you know, entrench myself in a space and think about what’s actually there and what’s happening. So when we look at we look at different areas, we’re looking at intersections. And that’s what we put in the proposal for this. One of the things is when we look at intersections, I just I’m laughing because I just spent two minutes ago earlier talking about not having definitions. And now I’m going to create a new definition and a new work. So I’m a hypocrite. But I usually try to have a transdisciplinary lens.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:23:28] So interdisciplinary is basically saying, you know, Laura’s an expert in social studies, Doug’s an expert in math, I’m an expert in English, or I’m an English teacher. We go into an area and we conduct research, and we all carry that baggage with us. And we look at my lens as an English teacher, your lens as a math teacher and into a transdisciplinary lens is just going in and going into it and seeing, okay, what authentically is happening there. Like what’s really going on? Um, and lastly, one of the, the, the interesting things is, you know, you you mentioned 2011, 2012. You know, that’s when we started to really see a lot of the new literacies, digital literacy work popping up. And my advisor in the Handbook of New Literacies famously began the word with basically an indication that this is going to change everything. This is going to empower all. It’s going to democratise into, you know, education and information. And this would change the entire world. And now I look back more than a decade later and just think about how naive we all were. Um, you know, that we really believed, you know, and when we were engaging in that web literacy work as well, I would suggest that we also altruistically believed that this would really change the world, and it would really empower a lot of individuals. And I don’t. I can’t speak for the two of you. I don’t think that’s the, the, the the mental framing that we’ve had in our earlier discussions going into this work.

Doug Belshaw: [00:25:09] No, no, no, it is it’s interesting. Like the more you know about this stuff, it’s a bit like Socrates, you know, who thought that he he knew nothing because he was wise enough to, as he knew more about the world, realised there was so much still left to to learn. And we haven’t got the final list of guests at the at the point of recording this. We’re still having conversations with people, but like I said before, the four kind of main areas are are race around challenging biases and cultivating cultural sensitivity around gender and deconstructing stereotypes and promoting inclusivity. I navigating the intersection of technology and information. And then the last one is geographic, geographic location and language kind of localisation bridging global divides. Now obviously when we talk to all these people, as you say, there’s going to be crossovers. They’re not going to just like stick to oh well I’m just going to talk about gender. There’s going to be wide ranging conversations. But we are going to try and frame it with a question which instead of being like a super academic question, please, could you speak in footnotes? It’s going to be like like Laura said before trying to start it with a question which allows us to dig into those conversations so we won’t share those those questions. Right now, we’ve got them kind of drafted, but we might want to firm those up a little bit. But we’re going to start off with things which might happen to people on a daily basis. So we can dig into why there might be more philosophical academic work around this, which might impact people’s thinking around it. Yeah. Is there anything else you want to discuss about kind of the format and how we’re going to structure this series of podcasts?

Ian O’Byrne: [00:26:55] Those four areas, those four buckets. They are those four lenses. They are not perfect. But the first two, race and gender are very important. There is a lot happening or there is a lot that should happen in intersectionality and technology. Meaning the different layers that individuals where the different identities that they carry. As a white, cisgender male, I recognise that I have a lot of power and privilege and bias in my work, and so I that is one of the struggles that I have as I help write definitions for what it means to be literate or how people should teach or learn or assess or evaluate, is that I have a lot of privilege in society because of the way I look and the way I carry myself, and the way that I dress and the way that I talk and act. And so I in, in as much of my work as possible, I try to de-center myself so that I can hear from other individuals and their experiences and how they actually have to utilise these technologies. And then the last I is obviously AI right now, but the last area in international or trans languaging or multilingual communities is very important because the world is a big, broad place and the internet is going to become much more diverse over the next decade. For the most part, you could go online or go on YouTube or social media and expect to see and no doubt see and hear a lot of just primarily English speakers. That’s going to change, and it will be very interesting to see as the internet becomes much more diverse. You know, we’ve seen what has happened as our, you know, quote unquote, real spaces or meet spaces as our communities become diverse, what changes happen and what outcomes happen? It’s going to be interesting to see what happens as different communities start to come online and connect. And then how do we create brave spaces for those individuals? How do we be more welcoming?

Laura Hilliger: [00:29:13] Yeah, I think there’s also, I think one of the threads that we’re probably going to pull through all of the the series is going to have to do with some of the things that are happening in society right now around misinformation and disinformation and loosely connected with those themes. But I think as we begin to sort of explore the literacies that our guests and ourselves are seeing come up as we start to sort of think about that transdisciplinary approach, I think that we’re probably going to be quite reflective on on the current state of the world and the current state of society, and the ways that the internet has actually changed how how we look at information and what we believe and where trust comes in. So I think that’s going to be a really interesting thread, because if we’re talking about if we’re talking about diversity, then we have to kind of have to talk about truth, right? So the truth is we are white people or we are privileged, and our perspective on all of this is missing something massive. And so even though we think something might be true, or we think that we have a particular sort of information as we expand the conversation to include more people, we’re definitely going to be having to change our minds and our perspectives about things. And so I think that’s going to be a really interesting through line as well.

Doug Belshaw: [00:30:37] Yeah, I think that’s a really important point, Laura, about because I think there’s a lot of conversation about, well, what is Capital-t truth. And talking about my, my thesis, the, the organising kind of methodology I had for that was American pragmatism, which basically says that truth is what a community of inquirers would settle upon after like an infinite amount of time, like on an asymptotic line. So there is no actual capital T truth apart from what we construct together and decide upon. And we’re used to kind of thinking about that through that world, that lens of misinformation and disinformation and, and to some extent, I, but we’re not really used to having that conversation about race and gender and geography. And so that’s going to be fascinating.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:31:25] Yeah, we’re going to keep a focus on media information literacy. You know, bringing it back to the talk about sci fi earlier. We’re going to try and keep a lens on. You know, one of the things that we want to be careful not to do is not get caught up and, you know, focus on the hot button issues from right now. And so we’re going to try and pay attention to the future, you know, five minutes from now, what could and should we be doing. What’s really important? How do we separate signal from noise and identify. Here’s real important stuff that we got to focus on. And here’s the other stuff that’s just noise, um, and trying to make sense of it. And lastly, there’s going to be stuff we talk about our four areas and indicated that they aren’t perfect. Um, there will be some areas and we’ve already come across some of them, some areas that we have to put in the parking lot. We have to just put off to the side and we can’t really go there. We’ve already had a couple areas where we’re not sure we can go there yet, or we can’t go there with this. We’ll try and document as many of those as possible. We will share podcasts, we’ll share random audio notes. We will, you know, recordings and focus groups. We’ll share blog posts, we’ll share the ultimate publication. So we’ll share bits and pieces throughout. But as we come across those areas, if you are joining us on this ride, those are going to be very important pieces for you to go in and sit in that discomfort for a bit and figure out, what does this mean for me, what does this mean for my neighbour across the street? What does this mean for that? You know, that kid sitting in the third grade classroom down the street as well?

Doug Belshaw: [00:33:05] Yeah, yeah. Okay. Well, maybe we should wrap things up there the last time. The next time us three will be together. Um, reflecting like this on on stuff will be the last episode. So the next episode in this series of podcasts is going to be either on race, gender, AI, or geographic location and language. And then they will be embedded into an academic article, kind of a more traditional one, except it will be published online and we’ll have embeds from SoundCloud and stuff in there. So if you’re kind of consuming this podcast, once the whole series has been released, we’ll have links in the show notes to that particular place that you can read the kind of the text that goes with this, which might help situate this a little bit more academically, if that’s what you’re interested in. But for now, do we have any final things we want to say before we we move on with the series?

Laura Hilliger: [00:34:06] I feel like at the beginning of each episode we should talk about sci fi books, because I have lots of stuff to say about old 1950s 1960s dystopian sci fi, and I bet I could connect it to all of the themes. But as a random idea, we can also take that offline. And if listeners and if listeners are interested in it, then this is a little Easter egg of go ahead and get in touch with me and I’ll tell you all of my dystopian random thoughts.

Doug Belshaw: [00:34:38] I think that’s a great idea, Ian.

Ian O’Byrne: [00:34:40] No, I’m really looking forward to this examination and looking forward to spending more time hanging out with the two of you, and looking forward to learning new things and being a bit confused and handling some cognitive dissonance as I explore these areas. So really looking forward to this and hopefully people will join us on the journey.

Doug Belshaw: [00:35:02] Yeah me too. Just looking forward to seeing what I learn and what our reflections are and having this kind of semester of learning, it’s going to be good. So cheers for now, and next time you’ll hear from us, we’ll be in the next episode.

Laura Hilliger: [00:35:02] Bye!