Digital Literacy

The internet has revolutionised our world. We can look up anything we want at the touch of a button. We can travel virtually to other times and places on amazing journeys of exploration. We can do our shopping, banking, film-watching and even socialising without leaving the house. And we can communicate with hundreds if not thousands of people all around the globe. There are undoubted benefits – but the online world is also a challenging place to navigate, and the rise of social media has played a huge role in changing local, national and global politics for ever.

It is sometimes said that we now live in a ‘post-truth’ world, where ‘fake news’ has more traction than evidence-based research. Hate speech has increased, with the rise of ‘trolls’ and the relative anonymity and lack of accountability for social media users. Online bots help to polarise voters, drive culture wars and interfere in elections. Algorithms help to reinforce or create like-minded ‘bubbles’, reducing dialogue across divides. And bad actors (racists, misogynists, terrorists, the list could go on) have become expert in using social media as a vehicle for radicalisation.

It might be thought that ancient cultures, which existed millennia before the internet was invented, might have little to offer in this space. But if we look at the digital world for what it is – a social, cultural and political space, where humans meet, communicate and interact – we can see many overlaps between the physical and the virtual. It is also the case that it is hard to spend much time online without encountering quotations, memes or references to Classical antiquity: Classics is already there, being co-opted by all sorts of people in the online world to entertain, persuade, legitimise and even sell goods and ideas.

If Classics is already there, then Classicists also should be. And indeed, many are. In our research we have learnt much from ‘public historians’ like Owen Rees (founder of Bad Ancient), Roel Konijnedikj (popular commentator on pre-modern war films – check out how many views he gets!), and Neville Morley (aka The Thucydides Bot, who gently corrects examples of ‘Thucydiocy’). We have also browsed many articles on Pharos, a website where classical scholars, students, and the public more broadly, can learn about appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups. Their mission statement has been important in our discussions of what ‘Applied Classics’ can involve:

‘The articles on Pharos are not intended to change the minds of those who use antiquity to support their racist ideologies. They are intended, rather, to ensure that someone who turns to the web to learn about antiquity can find condemnation of the appropriations we are documenting and a critique of the complacent idealization of the Greco-Roman world that provide a foundation for those appropriations.’

Sometimes, ‘Applied Classics’ must first tackle misappropriations of antiquity, before deploying ancient material in more positive ways.

While Rees, Konijnedijk and Morley all operate online, some interventions aimed at tackling issues in the digital world need not themselves take place there. Arguably, one factor in the rise of ‘fake news’ has been a shift in attitudes towards experts and expertise. Michael Gove’s 2016 claim that people in the UK ‘have had enough of experts‘ was symptomatic of wider commentary on the so-called ‘crisis of expertise’, which some have attributed directly to the internet. But this is not a new phenomenon. If we turn to the ancient world, we can explore many relevant debates about what expertise consists of, and what value certain kinds of knowledge or skill have/had. We can also witness many different ‘performances’ of expertise, as producers or purveyors of knowledge tried to get their authority recognised. Ancient ideas and constructions of experts/expertise can be deployed in all sorts of ways to deepen modern understanding and tackle contemporary challenges around knowledge-production and information-consumption today. It is also worth pointing out (as this BBC Bitesize lesson aims to do) that ‘fake news’ is itself not a modern challenge!

This is just a sample of the ways in which ‘Applied Classics’ can contribute to modern discussions of and problem-solving around digital issues. We hope that you enjoy browsing some of the project ideas we have developed below.