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Postcard 'Digital Natives' designed by Jonathan Remulla

Digital (Alter)Natives

Book review

Maarten van den Berg | September 19, 2011

‘Digital (Alter)Natives with a cause?’ is a collection of four books with essays published by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and the Dutch NGO Hivos. The books come in a beautifully designed cassette and are accompanied by a funky yellow package in the shape of a floppy disk containing the booklet ‘D:coding Digital Natives’, a corresponding DVD, and a pack of postcards portraying the evolution of writing - in the sentence ‘I love you’, written with a goose feather in 1734, to the character set  ‘i<3u’ entered on a mobile device in 2011.

#DigitalNatives

The publication is the outcome of a programme initiated by the two organizations to investigate the potentials for social change and political participation in emerging societies through the use of internet and communication technologies (ICTs). The programme is particularly interested in the strategic use of ICTs among young people, those who are born and have grown up with ‘things digital’ – hence, the ‘digital natives’, a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001.

But in the preface of the collection and the introduction to the first book, entitled ‘To Be’, the editors Nishant Shah and Fieke Jansen are quick to stress that by naming digital natives, they do not want to exclude any position whether defined by age, gender, class, language or location. Still, ‘we continue with the name’, they say, ‘because we believe that replacing this name with another is only going to be an epistemic change which tries to disown the earlier legacies and baggage that the name carries’.  I am not quite sure what that means. I take it they just like the hashtag #DigitalNatives – and I can’t blame them.

Testimonies

So who are these digital natives or how have they become? The booklet ‘D:coding Digital Natives’ portrays some of them. For instance, there is Frank Odaongkara from Uganda. He says that already in primary school he had the feeling that computers would change his life. Now Facebook is his homepage, and he has 1000 ebooks on his laptop, of which he’s read 350 already. Or there is Leandra Flor from the Philippines who says she became more dynamic and in touch with her surroundings because of the ‘wonders of technology in communication’. She has built her social life around it.

What emerges from these testimonies, what many of the digital natives share is the sense of empowerment. They feel empowered by ICTs to connect to others, to learn something, to engage with the world and build social lives. Contrary perhaps to the aspirations of the editors, I do find that the digital natives in emerging societies portrayed in the publication tend to come from relatively well-to-do families. The digital divide is still very real, when it comes to access to ICTs and their life-changing potentials.

Personal > political

That digital natives feel empowered by ICTs to build a social life does of course not necessarily entail that they bring about social change or pursue political goals. But one thing can lead to the other, even accidentally.  Take the story of Manal Hassan, an Egyptian woman who found herself trapped in Saudi Arabia when her family went to live there. She started a blog to write about her problem and got in contact with other Egyptian bloggers and digital activists. Women rights organizations adopted her cause, a lawyer took up her case, and she made news in the mainstream media. She had become a political actor.

There are more such stories in the publication. In the digital age, it seems, social change has gone viral. Digital natives can become political actors by sheer coincidence. I believe there is an important lesson to learn from that for sociologists and political scientists. We have to come to terms with the serendipity of collective action.

Digital methodology

For social scientists, there is more to be learned from the publication. In the introduction to the essays brought together in the chapter ‘To Think’ the editors pose that the rise and spread of digital and online technologies elicit new methods of understanding and research.  And they are quite right. In the essay ‘Digital methods to study digital natives with a cause’, Esther Weltevrede uses Twitter as a platform to study digital natives and their practices. And because the retweet is a practice adopted by digital natives to forward, or give voice to a message, she proposes that for the researcher the retweet becomes a way to quantify those messages that have ‘pass-along value’.  

Mob rule 2.0

As many of the authors are themselves digital natives and activists of sorts, most of them cannot hide their excitement about the opportunities that ICTs afford.  But there is some room for skepticism too. Thus, essayist Yi Ping Zou rightly observes that ‘the newly imagined communities that we call digital natives […] may not be all progressive, liberal and striving to make a change for the better’. In her contribution she warns us for ‘mob rule 2.0’ as the very digital technologies that allow us ‘to create processes of change for a just and equitable world’ are also technologies that ‘enable massively regressive and vigilante acts that exercise a mob-based notion of justice’.

That vision thing

And as is the case with any form of collective action, digitally mediated or not, there is the question of purpose. In an essay that compares the youth-led ‘revolution’ of 1968 and the Arab Spring of 2011, David Sasaki observes that both are essentially anti-establishment movements and that, so far, the latter has prioritized the removal of the current political class without offering a concrete vision of what ought to come next. As far as this author is concerned, the digital natives have yet to develop a vision of their own future – and the future of their governments.

I believe that we should not expect from today’s youth what yesterday’s young ones did not accomplish. Let us consider the digital natives and the technologies they employ for what they do, not for what they ought to be doing.  And after reading some of the testimonies of digital natives in this publication, I cannot but conclude – as Eddie Avila does in the last book – that what brings them together is “a vision that the everyday technologies in their lives can help them make changes in their immediate environments”. Such is not a vision about politics writ large. It is about change at the personal level, the ability to connect and engage with others, and, from there, the possibility to act collectively – and give it a larger direction.

'Digital (Alter)Natives with a cause?', Nishant Shah and Fieke Jansen (eds), is available for download in four parts at the website of the Hivos Knowledge Programme

Photo credit main picture: Postcard 'Digital Natives' designed by Jonathan Remulla