<span class='p-name'>The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate</span>

The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate

First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there. Learning, developing, and planning from a set of first principles is an effective strategy that you can employ to break down complicated problems and generate original solutions.

Great thinkers throughout time have employed first principles thinking to challenge big problems and systematically innovate. One of the most recent examples of thinking and problem solving as guided by first principles is found in Elon Musk. In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk indicated the following: “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.” He continued, “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy.” “[With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”

Put simply, first principles thinking is a practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario. By actively problematizing any and all situations, events, and challenges, you can create new innovative knowledge and solutions. In essence, you view problems as if you naively were the first person to experience this challenge.

The opposite of this practice is focused on reasoning and problem solving by analogy, and “learning from others.” In this process, you are building knowledge and solving based on the prior assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives of others. You’re subscribing to the “best practices” approved by everyone else.

To engage in first principles thinking, you need to identify the basic truths or assumptions about a topic or field that cannot be reduced any further. Aristotle defined these first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

Now that we have an understanding of what is meant by first principles thinking, let’s identify the first principles associated with being a fully literate citizen of the Internet. Down below I have listed the five first principles I believe are at the root of what it takes to be a digitally literate citizen, now and in the future.

Please feel free to push back and comment on this. Let me know what I got right. Let me know what is missing. You can leave comments below, or use Hypothesis to leave comments and annotations.

The version listed below is version two. We are currently working on version three. Feel free to make edits/comments here.

The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate

Principle #1 Search, sift, skim, and scan…while knowing what to ignore.

The Internet is an attention grabbing, time-sucking environment. Keep your focus and save your energy. Always focus your efforts on doing the most with the least amount of effort.

Principle #2 Think critically, look for mentors, and choose your own path.

Most of the things we think we know about the practices, skills, and dispositions needed in these online spaces is wrong. The Internet is still relatively new, and we’re still trying to figure out how to adapt to its influence in our lives. We must think critically about experts and sources who many times use old thinking and guidance to adapt to new times.

Principle #3 Be a healthy skeptic.

Develop an ultra-critical and evaluative stance in the face of all content, whether shared by your most trusted friend or someone you don’t know. Every click, share, like, and reaction adds to the digital breadcrumbs and algorithms that frame your digital identity. Think about your own perspectives and assumptions, and evaluate the source, bias, and perspective of what you learn online.

Principle #4 Create and curate the digital identity you want.

Being skilled or savvy in digital spaces has nothing to do with your age, or other factors. You can learn how to engage, communicate, and participate online. Connect with others. Follow their lead and learn from them. Identify who you want to be. Trust your gut and be yourself.

Principle #5 Embrace the chaos…go with the flow.

Be flexible, yet persistent as you learn and grow. You need to have an appreciation for the randomness, noise, and ambiguity that is present online. As you learn, focus on growth over time. Believe that there are iterations of your work and identity…and improve between each one. Feel free to “fail fast” and stop projects, or change if they do not work.

Principle #6 Don’t work more, work differently.

Truly engaging in these digital contexts involves a focus only the final product, but more importantly the process involved. This means that you need to actively develop a system and processes to help you live this lifestyle. This needs to be a cohesive strategy and plan that you regularly review over time.


If you like this post…make sure you subscribe to my weekly newsletter to keep in touch.

Image Credit

39 Comments The First Principles of Being Digitally Literate

  1. George Station

    Also, one of the most useful skills (however stated) is troubleshooting b/c there is always, always a glitch awaiting you somewhere. I like Larry Snyder (U of Wash.) take on that. 2/end

  2. William Ian O'Byrne

    The challenge is distilling it down to the most basic “first principles” or essential elements. One way that I view “first principles” is…if we take care of X, then everything else will take care of itself. This is hard to make happen. 🙂

  3. Laura Gibbs

    and I would also advocate for educating the faculty: if we take care of faculty, then they can take care for their students… but if we are expecting students to grow their digital literacy and not faculty, well, you know how that is going to turn out (badly)

  4. William Ian O'Byrne

    Absolutely. I’d be interested in what you (individually/collectively) think before looking at this. If you were to think of everything that it means (and takes) to be “digitally literate” what would that be if you boiled it down to its barest, essential elements? Then we compare.

  5. Lisa M. Lane

    I would trash all of this as being too advanced – people do not actually start with principles, and even these sources confuse the web with the internet. At the risk of beating a digital horse, I’d start with the browser, as a technology and a concept.

  6. William Ian O'Byrne

    I have my own audience in mind, it’s the same audience I had in mind for the #webliteracies work. I’d view the “normal” individual out there that is not daily thinking about this stuff. But…that’s not important. 🙂 Who should this focus on? What do you all think?

  7. Laura Gibbs

    and hive mind IS powerful: I just finished reading Deep Work, and while I really connected with some of it, the author’s total scorn for social media was really distressing. I guess he assumes traditional academic networking is all we need. … NOT!!!!! 🙂

  8. Cali Morrison, Ed.D.

    To principle 4 I added: As you learn and grow, don’t be afraid to curate and cull what no longer fits your digital identity. > this will be esp important 4 future gens. You don’t have to be stuck w/those digibreadcrumbs, it is ok to to cull.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.