One of the most significant transitions in the landscape of social and political movements, is how younger users of technology, in their interaction with new and innovative technologised platforms have taken up responsibility to respond to crises in their local and immediate environments, relying upon their digital networks, virtual communities and platforms. In the last decade or so, the digital natives, in universities as well as in work spaces, as they experimented with the potentials of internet technologies, have launched successful socio-political campaigns which have worked unexpectedly and often without precedent, in the way they mobilised local contexts and global outreach to address issues of deep political and social concern. But what do we really know about this Digital Natives revolution?
There are many stories about digital natives from academics, parents and guardians, civil society organisations, religious and cultural groups and so on. These narratives fail to understand the Digital Natives intimate understanding and interaction with technologies, and the ways in which they can be harvested for bringing about a significant transformation in their lives and their role in their societies. Mainstream and popular media portray digital natives extraordinary successes which are repeated continuously as a flash-in-the-pan that is more exception than the rule. Stories from Digital Natives are either lost or heavily mediated so that the problems, concerns, and visions that this growing population has, are almost never heard.
Stories about Digital natives often create the image of a small population of young, educated, international, cosmopolitan, articulate power users of digital technologies and Internet platforms, ubiquitously immersed in virtual networks and geographies, disconnected from their immediate environments. Largely, these stories focus on their fetishist usage of technology, the contained communities of self gratification that they seem to belong to, and their apparent apathy towards their own agency when it comes to question of social transformation and political participation. These narratives come from various sectors – from academics in schools and colleges who lament about producing ‘dumb generations’, from parents and guardians who feel frustrated at raising ‘screenagers’ in the homes, from civil society organisations who find it increasingly difficult to engage with youth for their causes, from religious and cultural groups who fail to initiate inter-generational dialogues, and from policy makers and government offices that seek to understand and regulate practices which are sometimes outside of the legal purview. Very little attention has been given to the possibilities and scope of Digital Natives intimate understanding and interaction with these technologies, and the ways in which they can be harvested for bringing about a significant transformation in their lives and their role in their societies.
Stories from Digital Nativesare either lost or heavily mediated so that the problems, concerns, and visions that this growing population has, are almost never heard. In a strange contradiction, this excessively articulate generation finds itself without a voice that can be heard outside the digital echo-chambers within which they are placed by these discourses. At the same time, unreasonable expectations that are pinned on occasional stories that get captured in mainstream and popular media (traditional or Web 2.0) that capture the extraordinary successes that young people in different contexts have achieved in coping with crises in their immediate environments. Academic discourses and scholarship treat these success stories as a onetime occurrence that cannot be replaced or reproduced in other contexts. The awe and the splendour of these stories hide the people, the infrastructure and the technologies that make these changes possible. The smaller transformations, mobilisations and coping mechanisms which are informed by Digital Native practices go unnoticed. As with the anxieties, these expectations are also voiced from people who do not think of themselves as part of the Digital Natives revolution.
These false binaries that exist not only in popular perceptions but also in academic discourse, governmental policy and development initiatives leads to a disconnect between the interventions that propose to harvest and mobilise Digital Natives and the practices that the young users of technology are initiating in their creative and local contexts. This disconnect is dangerous because it produces conditions of precariousness and danger for the Digital Natives who are often in need of physical, legal, social, cultural and political infrastructure to back up their actions and decisions. Around the world, on a regular basis we hear about how Digital Natives with good intentions embedded in values of justice, equity, development and change get into serious problems with the authorities.
In Thailand, young bloggers who voiced political discontent were arrested under the pretext of Les Majeste without any legal support. In China, digital activists asking for freedom of speech and demanding anti-censorship policies are regularly threatened by the government officials who also produce extreme conditions of surveillance. In India, Digital Natives using social networking systems to form communities of political dissent have been prosecuted. In Argentina, Digital Natives mobilising flash-mobs have been severely punished by their respective educational authorities. In Brazil, local volunteers orchestrating their activities using the Internet often come in conflict with local authorities who refuse to recognise their voices. In Malawi and Kenya, the police, in collaboration with the ‘witch hunters’ have used the internet to watch and trap young activists fighting for homosexuality rights in the countries.
As we probe deeper into the countries and hear the voices of the Digital Natives, these stories keep on piling up. Not all of them find their audience in mainstream media. A lot of them voice helplessness and despair when execution of ideology or transformative ideas leads to singularly dangerous conditions for the initiators. There is a need to document such stories and give them a more global visibility. More importantly, it is necessary to develop a knowledge network of Digital Natives who can offer p2p support to each other, as well as a multi-stakeholder network of experts who can provide support, guidance and advice to the Digital Natives in translating their ideas into responsible and safe movements which can achieve their ambitions. This project is the first step at building these networks and stands unique because no other aide agency or research organisation has yet tackled these questions and the concerns of ‘online safety’ have been restricted to only consumption of technology rather than the use and implementation of technology mediated interventions.
This project seeks to give back the voice to Digital Natives, asking them to document, articulate and reflect upon their own practices in order to explore and exploit the potentials, excitement and possibilities of their everyday use of technologies. It also aims to involve other stakeholders, particularly academics and practitioners, in dialogue with the digital natives. Thereby they will contextualise and paint a larger picture of the questions of agency, transformation and youth in different parts of the world. The book will have a website which documents these dialogues in a live form using Web 2.0 tools and inviting Digital Natives from around the world to share stories about themselves or about other Digital Natives that they might have encountered in their environments.
In the report ‘Digital Natives with a Cause?’, written by the Centre for Internet and Society for Hivos’ Knowledge Programme, three knowledge gaps were identified. These three gaps form the framework by which the book will be shaped.
1. Skewed representations: Most anecdotes and stories of Digital Natives are about power users of the internet in developed countries with fast speed internets and access. These narratives present Digital Natives as belonging to only a particular socio-economic demography and produces a ‘Digital Divide’ that is not always as clean a line as appears. In contexts where the internet is not so affordable or ubiquitous, we still find digital natives who find innovative ways by which to access and use the internet technologies to inform their transformative practices and ideas. Different modes of access, of sharing, of implementing and mobilisation need to be documented to give a sense of the complexity, both of Internet Technologies and the Digital Natives identities that are emerging in different contexts. These multiple perspectives also help in getting a sense of the varied geo-political contexts within which these technologies emerge and interact with the users’ own histories, politics and societies.
2. Changing practices of engagement: Internet technologies have produced unprecedented platforms of self expression, networking, peer-2-peer learning, and mobilisation. For Digital Natives, these platforms become the natural interfaces to their engagement with the world. There is a misconception that their practices online are disconnected from the larger reality within which they live. Our initial engagement with Digital Natives across different contexts shows that increasingly these digital platforms are embedded in complex social transactions, political negotiations and cultural productions, which are not always available to people outside their communities. An excavation of these practices to see how they use these platforms to cope with different crises in their immediate environments leads to a better understanding of the potentials that these practices have for social transformation and political intervention. From far flung corners of the world, stories emerge about how, in their own small way, Digital Natives are changing the world they live in, as they get empowered by digital and internet technologies. However, these stories often circulate only within certain contexts. Even when they do get some attention, their ambitions are not always clear and hence they do not get recognised as capturing the power that Digital Natives embody in their identities. It is necessary to get the Digital Natives to document their own practice, and the ideas and ambitions that propel them to understand how thoughts and ideas, often through an aesthetic of playfulness and game-playing, get translated into transformative action with significant impacts for the people involved.
3. A question of scale:Digital Technologies, but especially the internets, have shrunk the world in our imaginations. Because of its globalised outreach and the rhetoric of connectedness that propels a lot of the Web 2.0 development, the scale of transformation that we imagine possible with the use of internet technologies is massive. Only those activities get famous that involve thousands of users being mobilised towards a particular cause. Only those transformations are recognised as significant which have demonstrable value for a larger public or social consumption. However, in their own environments, Digital Natives are making small but significant changes to respond to different problems, questions and crises through their use of technology. These interventions can be within their group of friends, or their peers in education and colleagues, or in their interpersonal relationships and social-political networks. They might be informing new forms of cultural production or engagement and consumption. In these smaller interventions are the real potentials of scaling up for much larger changes. Educating the digital natives involved in these practices, to realise the potentials for transformation and helping them document their processes and imaginations can give us the first idea of what the future of activism and social movements holds for us.
Various methodologies will be used to be able to produce a book with offline and online components that caries both the narratives of digital natives as well as other stakeholders such as academics and practitioners.
The first part of book will be shaped by three regional workshops across the globe designed around specific thematic areas. In an attempt to build a Knowledge Network , Digital Natives from different contexts – social, linguistic, political, cultural, gendered – will be brought together in 3 day workshops that not only help them share their ideas and practices but also give them a hands-on experience of documenting and reflecting upon the potentials for change and transformation in their own practices.
For the three workshops, three areas have been identified which will find takers in different parts of the world:
My Bubble, My Space, My Voice:Digital Natives have created communities of learning, exchange and experimentation harnessing the powers of social networking and p2p exchange. These communities have their own socio-linguistic practices and are often encoded by references, events and rituals which do not allow easy access to an outsider. However, these communities scattered across blogs, social networking systems, role playing games, discussion forums, mash-ups and file sharing, have huge potentials for political mobilisation. There have been viral forms like flash-mobs, petitions, campaigns, digital strikes, hackathons, etc. that the Digital Natives have organised using these technology platforms. The first workshop invites Digital Natives who have used the power of their communities of belonging in order to make interventions – both online and offline – to respond to problems, crises, or needs that they have observed in their immediate environments. The broad scope of the workshop ensures that despite a difference in methodology, ambitions or content of the practice, the Digital Natives can reflect upon the similarities of their actions and the points of departure that are necessitated by their contextual location.
Talking Back: Because of the age bias and the dependence of a large section of Digital Natives around the world, on structures of authority, there has always been a problem of power that has restricted or reduced the scope of their practice and intervention. For younger Digital Natives, Parental authority and the regulation from schools often becomes a hindrance that thwarts their ambitions or ideas so that even when they take the initiative towards change, they are often stopped and at other times their practices are dismissed as insignificant. In other contexts, because of existing laws and policies around Internet usage and freedom of expression, the voices of Digital Natives get obliterated or chastised by government authorities and legal apparatuses which monitor and regulate their practices. The second workshop brings in Digital Natives from contested contexts – be it the micro level of the family or the paradigmatic level of governance – to discuss the politics, implications and processes of ‘Talking Back’. The workshop focuses on uncovering the circuitous routes and ways by which Digital Natives have managed to circumvent authorities in order to make themselves heard. The workshop also dwells on what kind of support structures need to be developed at global levels for Digital Natives to engage more fruitfully, with their heads held high and minds without fear, with their immediate environments.
From Face to the Interface : As computing becomes more portable and accessible, Digital Natives around the world are looking at and experimenting with new interfaces that allow them to straddle the physical and the digital seamlessly. The availability of easy to move digital production devices like cameras, voice recorders, internet access, GPS all bundled into cellular phones and PDAs, the world is being re-connected in strange and unprecedented ways. Digital Natives use these technologies not only for interpersonal communication and social networking but also as creative means of producing knowledge about their own lives and opinions. The internet is abuzz with these young opinion makers who are discovering the potentials of digital and internet technologies to make their voice heard, and they are doing it with style. User Generated Content websites, personal audio/video blogs and podcasts, and local reportage are some of the activities that are in vogue. More interestingly, the availability of these devices in their everyday lives, allows them to breach the offline-online divide. Digital Natives successfully navigate through both the offline and online worlds, using the capacities and capabilities of one system to enhance their actions and ideas in the other. These overflows and syntheses of the digital and the physical worlds needs to be captured and articulated to give a larger contextual understanding of Digital Native identities and practices. The Internet does not remain as merely a noun – something that needs to be realised or accessed, but also becomes a verb – a way of doing things; a paradigm that produces structures like peer2peer, collaborative productions, processes of sharing and learning etc It also helps locate the internet in not just the stationary screens that we have always anchored it but also in the world around us.