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On Fooling Around: Digital Natives and Politics in Asia

Posted by Nishant Shah at Nov 03, 2011 05:40 AM |
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Youths are not only actively participating in the politics of its times but also changing the way in which we understand the political processes of mobilisation, participation and transformation, writes Nishant Shah. The paper was presented at the Digital Cultures in Asia, 2009, at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan.

Abstract

As an increasing population in Asia experiences a lifestyle mediated by digital technologies, there is also a correlated concern about the young Digital Natives constructing their identities and expressions through a world of incessant consumption, while remaining apathetic to the immediate political and social needs of their times. Governments, educators, civil society theorists and practitioners, have all expressed alarm at how the Digital Natives across emerging information societies are so entrenched in the rhetoric, vocabulary and practice of consumption, that they have a disconnect with the larger external reality and are often contained within digital deliriums. They discard the emergent communication and expression trends, mobilization and participation platforms, and processes of cultural production, as trivial or often unimportant. Such a perspective is embedded in a non-changing view of the political landscape and do not take into account that the youth's consumption of globalised ideas and usage of digital technologies, has led to a new kind of political revolution, which might not subscribe to earlier notions of change but nevertheless offer possibilities for great social transformation.

Context: Techno-Social Identities

It was the beginning of the 1990’s that ushered in the digital globalisation in Asia and emerging information societies were experiencing a moment of significant socio-political and econo-cultural transition.  Many countries in South and East Asia restructured their developmental agenda to accommodate the neo-liberal paradigm that opened their economic and cultural capital to the globalised world markets (Roy; 2005). Unlike in the West, especially in the United States of North America and North-Western Europe, where the internet technologies developed in hallowed spaces of academic and government research, conceptualised in an idealised ethos of open source cultures, free speech and shared knowledges (Himanen; 2001), the emergence of digital ICTs were signifiers of a certain economic mobility, globalised aesthetic of incessant consumption, availability of lifestyle-choices and a reconfiguring of the State-Citizen relationship.
As different countries in Asia invested in the physical infrastructure of ICTs and widespread access to cyberspatial technologies, they also posited the figure of a techno-social citizen-subject who was caught in a double bind: On the one hand, these new subjects were the wealth of the nations, providing a base for outsourcing and back-processing industries, using their skills with digital technologies to aid the State’s aspirations of economic progress and development. With the digital technologies appearing as the panacea for the various problems of illiteracy, population explosion and ethnic/regional conflicts that have marked many Asian countries in the second half of the Twentieth Century, these new subjects were looked upon as the pall-bearers who would usher in the much desired economic development and socio-cultural reform in these emerging information societies. On the other hand, the ability of these techno-social subjects to transcend their local, to circumvent State authority and regulation, and adapt to a new era of economic and cultural consumption, posited a huge problem for these States that strove to contain the spills of an economic decision into the domains of the social, cultural and the political (Bagga, et al; 2005).
Among the populations who were actively (or, as is often the case, unwittingly) embodying these changes, were the Digital Natives – younger children and youth who have embraced digital technologies and tools as central to their every-day lives and sense of the self – who used (and abused) these technologised spaces in unpredictable and creative ways beyond, and often against, the authority of the State (Shah; 2007) . This particular identity has raised a lot of concern from different authorities like the government, the educators, the legislators and policy makers, and even civil society practitioners and theorists. Most governments had their initial responses to these Digital Native identities as rooted in paranoia and pathologisation. The cyberspatial matrices are looked at with suspicion as creating a world of the forbidden, the dirty and the dangerous. Public debates over pornography, obscenity, need to control and censor the unabashed fantasies that the cyberspaces were catering to, and a call to govern, administer and contain these spaces (and consequently, the people occupying them), have riddled through information societies around the globe.
The many anxieties that have surfaced from parents, teachers, interventionists and policy makers, have led to a global industry that is aimed at keeping the children and youth safe from the ‘ill-effects’ of being online. The responses have been varied and diverse: Radical measures from heavy censorship and regulation of all information accessed through the digital spaces to opening up de-addiction and rehabilitation centres; Strong anti-piracy and pornography drives to forming strict legislation on digital crimes; Extraordinary steps to educate the young people about the perils and pit-falls of internet usage to actual policies dissuade internet usage by regulating the physical spaces of access and the promise of dire punishments for ‘abuse’.

Providing a litany of these anxieties – each made unique by the differential and contextual experience of digital technologies across regions and societies – can be a daunting and eventually a futile exercise because the landscape of digital technologies and spaces is extremely varied and fluid and each new crisis leads to the emergence of a new set of problems. However, there are certain common tensions and uncontested assumptions that run through these anxieties, which need to be understood and examined. It is the intention of this paper to extrapolate these less visible anxieties with a particular focus on the techno-social identity more popularly referred to as Digital Natives.

Misunderstood & Misrepresented

The term ‘Digital Natives’ (Prensky, 2001) is slowly becoming ubiquitous in its usage amongst scholars and activists working in the youth-technology paradigm, especially in emerging Information Societies. The phrase is used to differentiate a particular generation – generally agreed upon as a generation that was born after 1980 – who has an unprecedented (and often inexplicable) relationship with the information technology gadgets. It is a phrase used to make us aware of the fact that these people are everywhere: On the roads taking pictures on their mobile phones and uploading them on their blogs and photo-streams; In public transport, in their own individually created islands where they listen to music and furiously typing text message their friends; In schools and universities, multitasking, preparing a classroom presentation while chatting with friends and keeping track of their online gaming avatars; In offices, glued in with equal passion on to dating and social networking sites as the geek mailing list that they moderate; In homes and bedrooms, uploading the most private and intimate details of their lives (or becoming subjects to other peoples’ online activities) on live cam feeds and audio and video podcasts; In our imaginations, sometimes cracking into our machines, at others, helping us remove that malware, and at yet others, appearing as flesh-and-body familiar strangers just a click away.
All of these are the common sense characteristics attributed to Digital Natives. These are all people born into globalised markets and liberal economies; into accelerated communication and digital representations. And they have skills (and choices) to navigate through the increasingly mediated and digitised technosocial[1] environments that we live in. Most of the stories around these Digital Natives, take on the expected tones of euphoria and paranoia. On the one hand, are the unabashed celebrations of this new digital identity and the possibilities and potentials it offers, and on the other are concerns and alarms about the lack of structures which can make meaning or shape these identities in meaningful and constructive ways which can contribute to a certain vision of democracy, equality, community building and freedom. Both these accounts often contain the Digital Native in geo-political (North-Western, developed countries) and socio-cultural (Educated, affluent, empowered), and do not provide much insight into the incipient potentials of social transformation and political participation with the rise of the Digital Native identity.
There are strident voices that knell the toll of parting day when it comes to Digital Natives. There is a general outcry from scholars that the typical Digital Native is basically dumb. Mark Bauerlein (2008) calls them ‘The Dumbest Generation’ that is jeopardising our future. He paints them as being in a state of constant distraction made of multi-tasking and gadgets that demand their attention. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell suggests that they exhibit, because of their scattered engagement with technology, symptoms that look like attention deficit disorders. The educators in class lament about how this is a copy + paste culture that refuses to read and write or even think on their own (Bennett et al, 2008) as Digital natives increasingly depend on machines and networks to do their work for them.
In 2008, China recorded its 100 millionth internet user and also witnessed the death of a 13-year-old Digital Native, who, after two days of non-stop gaming, jumped off an elevator to ‘meet another character from his game’ (China Times; 2008) – the gaming environment leading him to a state of hypnosis where he could not make a distinction between his physical reality and his digital fantasy. Immediately following this, China started its first internet rehabilitation clinics, identifying internet addiction disorder (IAD) as significantly affecting young people’s mental growth as well as their social and interpersonal skills. Dan Tapscott has announced the birth of the “Screenagers” who are unable to look beyond their need for entertainment and personal gratification, all at their fingertips as they live their lives on the Infobahn.
It is in the nature of the design of trust online (Nevejan, 2008) that the Digital Native in his/her transactions becomes the centre of his/her own universe. The recent explosion of news feeds on sites like Facebook, or the use of Twitter to create social networks, or blogging which is often contained in echo-chambers (as demonstrated by Howard Dean’s political campaign in the USA, 2004), often gives the young Digital Native an inflated sense of the self. The tools that the Digital Natives have for finding people who think exactly like them lead to a sense of intense self gratification (Shah, 2005) and also provide a dangerous outlet for violence to themselves and others, as they find validation for their actions within that group without facing any protest or conflict – what Loren Coleman (2007) calls the ‘copycat effect’. The phenomenon of younger users seeking internet celebrity status by engaging in dangerous activities like confessionals, recording and sharing of sexual escapades, bullying and exposing themselves in ridiculous situations to get attention and limelight, have raised concern among parents and educators (Gasser and Palfrey; 2007).
This list is by no means exhaustive but gives a clear indication of how the Digital Natives are contained in the matrices of the internet in their representations and are painted as irresponsible and irreverent individuals who appear as pranksters, jesters, and clowns, carrying with them, also the darker sides of cruel humour, dark deeds and sinister pranks which need to be regulated and censored – to save the society from this growing menace, and indeed, to save them from themselves.

Pranksters, Jesters and Clowns?

It is easy, from such perspectives, to not only demonise (thus enabling regulation and control) of Digital Native identities but also ignoring their new aesthetics, politics and mechanisms of participation and change as trivial or ‘merely cultural’. There have been many instances, over the years, where each new technology and technologised space of cultural production has been treated as frivolous, infantile or faddy. Let me take this discussion through three case-studies where Digital Native spaces, engagements and activities have been perceived as juvenile or foolish to examine this particular presumption of trivialness that is often pegged on the Digital Natives and their activities. Each Case-Study has been structured in two parts: the first gives a short understanding of the technologised phenomenon and space, the second provides a brief summary of the event.

Flash (Mob) in a Pan from India

Flash-mobs: Organise, congregate, act, disperse – that is the anatomy of a flash mob. Howard Rheingold, in his book titled Smart Mobs, suggests that the people who make up smart mobs co-operate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people's telephones. Dirt-cheap microprocessors embedded in everything from box tops to shoes are beginning to permeate furniture, buildings, neighbourhoods, products with invisible intercommunicating smartifacts. When they connect the tangible objects and places of our daily lives with cyberspace, handheld communication media mutate into wearable remote control devices for the physical world (Rheingold, 2001).  The flash-mobs, along with the now ubiquitous terms like viral-networking and crowd-sourcing are the most significant examples of the ways in which the digital networks can mobilise people towards a common cause within the digital matrices as well as in the physical world.
The story: India’s first recorded flash-mob started with a website asking for volunteers who wanted to ‘have some serious fun’. On the 3rd of October,  when several cell phones rang and email inboxes found an email that briefly chalked out the time and space for a venue – a Flash site. Text messages were sent to all the members who had volunteered by anonymous agencies. And then at 5:00 p.m., the next day, about a 100 participants assembled at a mall called Crossroads.
At the Crossroads Flash-Mob, the mobsters screamed at the top of their voices and sold imaginary shares. They danced. They all froze still in the middle of their actions. And then without as much as a word, after two minutes of historic histrionics, they opened their umbrellas and dispersed, leaving behind them a trail of bewilderment and confusion. This was India’s first recorded flash-mob. People who never knew each other, did not have any largely political purpose in mind and did not really intend to extend relationships, got together to perform a set of ridiculous actions at Crossroads. This first flash mob sparked off many different flash mobs all around the nation – most of them marking out spaces like multiplexes, shopping malls, gaming parlours, body shops, large commercial roads and shopping complexes as their flash sites.
One of the most celebrated accounts of the flash-mob was by Bijoy Venugopal, a serious blogger and writer (Venugopal; October 2003), who also reiterated the fact that the intention of participation was to have some ‘serious fun.’ Subsequent experience-sharing by other members of the flash-mobs also endorsed the idea that the flash-mob was like an extension of online gaming or the tenuous digital communities which are a part of the lifestyle choices and social networking for an increasing number of people in the large urban wi-fi centres of India. The Flash-mob seemed to carry with it all the elements that digital cyberspaces have to offer – a sense of tentative belonging, a grouping of people who seek to network with each other based on similar interests, a growing sense of a need to ‘enchant’ the otherwise quickly mechanised world around us, and an exciting space of novel experiences and unmonitored, pseudonymous (except for the physical presence) fun.
The flash-mob gained huge media coverage and local buzz and was talked about and debated upon quite furiously in popular media. The organisers of the flash-mobs became instant celebrities and were questioned repeatedly about the reasons for organising the flash-mob. The answer was always unwavering – the organisers insisted that the flash-mobs were a way for them to instil fun and novelty in the very hurried life in Mumbai. On the website, Rohit Tikmany, one of the original organisers, very passionately argues:
We are not making any statement here - we are not protesting anything - we are not a revolution, a movement or an agitation. Our purpose (if any) is solely to have fun… None of us is here for anything except fun. We will not have any sponsors (covert or overt) and we will never respond to any commercial/political/religious influences. (Tikmany, 2003)
There was a particular and specific disavowal of the ‘political’. The organisers went out of their way to convince that they do not have any political cause that they endorse, that they are not affiliated with any socio-political organisations or parties in the city, and that their actions were guided only by the desire to have some fun and games. The popular media painted it as a fad that made its point about internet mobilisation but was nothing more than a flash in a pan. Initial responses to the flash-mobsters painted them as clowns – a bunch of young people having a bit of fun. It came as a particular shock, in the face of this celebratory mode of looking at flash-mobs and the composition of the crowd (largely upper class, English speaking, Educated, and implicated in the digital circuits of globalised consumption), when the flash-mobs came to be banned in Mumbai and then around the country, as ‘a serious threat the safety and security of the public’ and offering ‘unfavourable conditions of danger’ in the city.
Flash-mobs have been recorded around the globe, for different reasons and to fulfil varied socio-political ambitions. However, most of them have been explicitly for fun. Tapio Makela at the Tempare University, Finland, suggests that flash-mobs are indeed the first real-time digital gaming experience that the internet can provide us with. And yet, flash-mobs are being regulated in almost all emerging Information Societies. While the political rhetoric of unsupervised mobilisation can be understood easily, what lies beneath it is a much more interesting story. For emerging information societies in the world, the digital technologies have a much more significant role to play in economic development and creation of global infrastructure. Most governments have invested highly in the creation of techno-social skill based identities and have a clear idea of the ‘correct’ usage of technology. The flash-mobs present a situation where the ‘ideal’ citizens who should be engaging with these technologies to enhance the labour markets and augment the nation’s efforts at restructuring in global times, are engaging in apparently frivolous activities which are aimed at self gratification and fun. Flash-mobs, through their aesthetic of irreverence and fun, also present a space for criticism and political negotiation to the Digital Natives, who, while they might not be equipped to engage with traditional channels of politics, are now finding ways by which to make their opinions and expressions heard.
The Flash-mob in Mumbai, for example, builds upon a much richer contextual local history of politics and access. Crossroads, the flash-site, was also the first American Super-Mall in India. In 2001, when the mall opened, it was restrictive in its access, where it demanded the curious onlooker to either pay an entry fee of 50 Indian Rupees or be in possession of a Platinum Credit Card or a Cell phone to enter the mall. The idea was that only a certain kind of citizenship was welcome in this consumerist heaven. It was presumed that people who do not come from a class that can afford to purchase things in the mall might not know how to behave in the mall. A public interest litigation suit against the mall soon revoked these conditions of access and announced the mall as a public space of consumption. However, the lineage of the restrictive conditions that the mall opened with, resonates through the local knowledge systems. The first flash-mob at Crossroads, even though it was ‘fun’, managed to provide a critique of the new class based urban society that global India is building. Ironically, the people who constituted that flash-mob and managed to turn the mall into a place of total chaos for the brief performance were the ‘desirable’ people for the mall. Such a critique, while it might not be overtly articulated for different reasons, still manages to surface once the contextual histories of these events are produced.

10 Legendary Obscene Beasts  from China

User Generated Knowledge sites: The world of knowledge production was never as shaken as it was with the emergence of the Wikipedia – a user generated knowledge production system, where anybody who has any knowledge, on almost anything in the world, can contribute to share it with countless users around the world. The camps around Wikipedia are fairly well divided: there are those who swear by it, and there are those who swear against it. There are scholars, activists and lobbyists who celebrate the democratisation of knowledge production as the next logical evolutionary step to the democratic access to knowledge. They appreciate the wisdom of crowds and revel in the joy that in the much discussed Nature magazine experiment, the number of errors in Wikipedia and its biggest opponent, Encyclopaedia Britannica, were almost the same. And then there are those who think of the Wikipedia and other such peer knowledge production and sharing systems as erroneous, unreliable and a direct result of collapsing standards that the vulgarisation of knowledge has succumbed to in the age where information has become currency. Add to this the hue and cry from academics around the globe who lament falling research standards as the copy+paste generations (Vaidhyanathan; 2008) in classrooms skim over subjects in Wikipedia rather than analysing and studying them in detail from those hallowed treasuries of knowledge – reference books.
As can be expected, the questions about the veracity, verifiability, trustworthiness and integrity of Wikipedia and other such user generated knowledge sharing sites (including YouTube, Flickr, etc.) are carried on in sombre tones by zealots who are devoted to their beliefs. However, the one question that remains unasked, in the discussion of these sites, is the question of what purpose it might serve beyond the obvious knowledge production exercise.
The Story: In China, where the government exerts great control over regulating online information, Wikipedia had a different set of debates which would not feature in the more liberal countries – the debates were around what would be made accessible to a Wikipedia user from China and what information would be blanked out to fit China’s policy of making information that is ‘seditious ‘and disrespectful’, invisible. After the skirmishes with Google, where the search engine company gave in to China’s demands and offered a more censored search engine that filtered away results based on sensitive key-words and issues, Wikipedia was the next in line to offer a controlled internet knowledge base to users in China.
However, another user-generated knowledge site, more popular locally and with more stringent self-regulating rules than Wikipedia, became the space for political commentary, satire, protest and demonstration against the draconian censorship regimes that China is trying to impose on its young users. The website Baidu Baike (pinyin for Baidu Encyclopaedia), became popular in 2005 and was offered by the Chinese internet search company Baidu. With more than 1.5 million Chinese language articles, Baidu has become a space for much debate and discussion with the Digital Natives in China. Offered as a home-grown response to Wikipedia, Baidu implements heavy ‘self-censorship to avoid displeasing the Chinese Government’ (BBC; 2006) and remains dedicated to removing ‘offensive’ material (with a special emphasis on pornographic and political events) from its shared space.
It is in this restrictive regime of information sharing and knowledge production, that the Digital Natives in China, introduced the “10 legendary obscene beasts” meme which became extremely popular on Baidu. Manipulating the Baidu Baike’s potential for users to share their knowledge, protestor’s of China’s censorship policy and Baidu’s compliance to it, vandalised contributions by creating humorous pages describing fictitious creatures, with names vaguely referring to Chinese profanities, with homophones and characters using different tones.
The most famous of these creations was  Cao Ni Ma   (Chinese: 草泥马), literally "Grass Mud Horse", which uses the same consonants and vowels with different tones for the Chinese language profanity which translates into “Fuck Your Mother”  cào nǐ mā (肏你妈) . This mythical animal belonging to the Alpaca race had dire enemies called héxiè (河蟹), literally translated as “river crabs”, very close to the word héxié (和谐) meaning harmony, referring to the government’s declared ambition of creating a “harmonious society” through censorship. The Cao Ni Ma, has now become a popular icon appearing in videos distributed on YouTube, in fake documentaries, in popular Chinese internet productions, and even in themed toys and plushies which all serve as mobilising points against censorship and control that the Chinese government is trying to control.
However, the reaction from those who do not understand the entire context is, predictably, bordering on the incredulous. Most respondents on different blogs and meme sites, think of these as mere puns and word-plays and juvenile acts of vandalism. The Chinese monitoring agencies themselves failed to recognise the profane and the political intent of these productions and hence they survived on Baidupedia, to become inspiring and iconic symbols of the slow and steady protest against censorship and the right to information act in China. Following these brave acts, Baidu’s user base also experimented very successfully with well-formed parodies and satires, opening up the first spaces in modern Chinese history, for political criticism and negotiation.[2] What is discarded or overlooked as jest or harmless pranks, are actually symptomatic of a new generation using digital tools and spaces to revisit what it means to be politically active and engaged. The 10 obscene legendary creatures, like the flash-mobs, can be easily read as juvenile fun and the actions of a youth that is quickly losing its connection with the immediate contemporary questions. However, a contextual reading combined with a dismantling of the “Digital Native in a bubble” syndrome, can lead to a better understanding of the new aesthetic of social transformation and political participation – one which is embedded in the growing aesthetic of fun, irreverence, and playfulness.

A 32 Year Old Dancing Global Nomad

Context: The aesthetic of irreverence, of playfulness and of exuberant joy is perhaps the best demonstrated by the third case-study which deals with user generated content and sharing sites like YouTube and Blip TV or social networking sites like Facebook and Livejournal. With the easy availability of digital technologies of production – portable laptops and digital cameras, PDAs enabled with phones and multi-media services, webcams and microphones – and tools to share and exchange these productions, there has been an unprecedented amount of digital cultural production which has propelled what we now call the Web 2.0 explosion. There has been much criticism about how we are building a junkyard of digital information. Videos of cats and hamsters dancing, inane audio and video podcasts documenting personal anecdotes and opinions, blogs that publish everything from favourite recipes to sexual escapades, and social networking sites that map rising networks, all add to the immense amount of data that dwells in cyberspace. Questions of data mining, of data redundancy are coupled with alarms of the ‘infantile’ uses of technology have emerged in recent debates around this user generated content. Governments are also battling with problems of piracy, hate-speech, bullying and fundamentalism that have found pervasive channels through these platforms and networks.
The Story: In the middle of celebrity hamsters (Hampster the Hamster), popular dancing babies, and parodies of pop stars, there was one particular internet celebrity who is famous, because nobody knows where he is going to dance next. “Where the Hell is Matt?” is a viral video which shot to fame first in 2006, which features Matt Harding, a video game designer from America, who performs a singularly identifiable dance routine in front of various popular destinations in different countries around the world. It started off as a friend recording Matt Harding doing a peculiar dance in Vietnam became popular on the internet and became one of the most popular videos on cyberspace, with his second video released in 2008, viewed 19,860,041 times on YouTube as on 31st March 2009.
Harding has now become a celebrity, featuring on TV talk shows, guest lecturing at universities, and is brand ambassador to a couple of global brands. He is now, also featured dancing on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website under the title “Happy People Dancing on Planet Earth”, claiming that it shows humans worldwide sharing a joy of dancing. Unlike the flash-mobs and the Baidupedia instances, Where The Hell is Matt? does not have any overt political position or agenda. It has not entered into a condition of strife or struggle with any authoritative regimes or systems of conflict. And yet, what Harding has managed, through his ‘pranks’ , is to create a series of videos which have now come to embody values of cultural diversity, tolerance and universal joy. Instead of making serious speeches, petitions or demonstrations, through his prankster image, Matt Harding has become the unofficial ambassador of peace and harmony around the globe, being discussed avidly by anybody who sees him, with a smile.
One can either ignore this viral video as a short-lived meme that will soon be forgotten by the next dancing sensation. Even if it might be true, the impact that the “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos have created is significant. When Matt sarcastically said at Entertainment Gathering, that his videos were a hoax, that he was an actor and the videos were an exercise in animatronic puppets and video editing, he had everybody from fans on blogs to new reporters on television responding to it – some often with outrage at being ‘fooled’ by such morphing. Harding revealed his ‘hoax about a hoax’ at the Macworld convention to great amusement. While Matt’s dancing pranks might indeed be forgotten by the next big thing, it is still a fruitful exercise to read it as symptomatic of a much larger redefinition of notions of political participation and social transformation that the Digital Natives and their technology-mediated environments are bringing about.

Digital Natives: Causes, Pauses

Running common, through all these three stories, in popular discourse as well as in academic scholarship, is the presumption of frivolity and non-seriousness that misses out on the much larger contexts of socio-political change. The youth have always been at the forefront of social transformation and political participation. The youth, traditionally, has also had an intimate relationship with new technologies of cultural production, producing influential aesthetics through experimentation and innovation. A brief look at the socio-political history of technologies, shows us that the young who grow up with certain technologies as central to their mechanics of life and living, have led to a reconfiguring of their role and function in the society. The emergence of the print culture, for example, led to the energising of the public spheres in Europe, where young people with access to education and books, could participate and restructure their immediate socio-political environments. Cinematic realism has had its heyday as the tool for political mobilisation through representing the voice of the underprivileged communities. The expansion of the tele-communication networks have led to the rise and fall of governments while changing the face of socio-political and economic activities.
It is not as if these technologies were without their own concerns, questions and doubts. However, most of these anxieties have been successfully resolved through experience, experiment and analysis. Such practices and communities have Moreover, the promise and the potential of this youth-technology engagement have always surpassed the ensuing anxiety.
With the Digital Natives, as a small percentage of the world’s population engages with technologies and tools that are quickly gaining currency and popularity, there seems to be a cacophony of alarms and anxieties which seem to have no scope for resolution or respite. And this alarm seems to be louder and more anxious than ever before because it marks a disconnect of the Digital Natives from the role that youth-technology relationships has borne through history – that the Digital Natives are in a state of apathy when it comes to engaging in processes of social transformation and political mobilisation and prefer to stay in isolated bubbles of consumerism and entertainment. This particular accusation that is levelled at the Digital Natives, if true, is not only alarming but also bodes dire fortunes for the whole world as a new generation refuses to engage with questions of politics, governance and transformation outside of the realm of the economic and the personal. This particular disconnect amplifies the other anxieties – moral anxieties around pornography and sexuality, ethical anxieties about plagiarism and piracy, intellectual anxieties about knowledge production and research – because the re-assurance that the Digital Natives will augment the processes of positive social transformation and fruitful political participation, is perceived as lost.
Moreover, unlike earlier technologies, the youth is not being guided into the use of digital technologies but are actually spearheading the development, consumption and rise of these technologies. There is a strong reversal of the power structure, where the digital migrants and settlers have to depend upon the Digital Natives to traverse the terrain of the digital environments. The Digital Natives are in a uniquely singular position where, due to the economic and global restructuring of the world, their world-view and ideas are gaining more currency and visibility than those belonging to previous generations. However, the adults who enter the world of the Digital Natives, insist on viewing them through certain misapplied prisms:
Difference without change:  These stories or anecdotal data almost always gives us a sense of marked difference of identity in an unchanging world. The Digital Native remains a category or identity which remains to be understood in its difference to integrate it into a world vision that precedes them. The difference is invoked only to emphasise the need for continuity from one generation to another; and thus making a call to ‘rehabilitate’ this new generation into earlier moulds of being.
The social construction of loss: A common intention of these stories is to mourn a loss. Each new technology has always been accompanied by a nostalgia industry that immediately recreates a pre-technologised, innocent world that was simpler, better, fairer, and easier to live in. Similarly, the Digital Native identity is premised on multiple losses[3] : loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of control, loss of privacy etc. Predicated on this list, is the specific loss of political participation and social transformation; a loss of the youth as the political capital of our digital futures.
Trivialising the realm of the Cultural: The third is that these anecdotes of celebration and fear, mark the Digital Native’s actions and practices as confined to some “My bubble, My space” personal/cultural  private world of consumption which, when they do connect to larger socio-political phenomena, is accidental. Moreover, they concentrate on the activities and the immediate usage/abuse of technology rather than concentrating on the potentials that these tools and interactions have for the future. They paint the Digital Native as without agency, solipsistic, and in the ‘pointless pursuit of pleasure’, thus dismissing their cultural interactions and processes as trivial and residing in indulgent consumption and personal gratification.
Such perspectives and analytical impulses are a result of the pertinent and influential research methods and disciplinary baggage within contemporary cybercultures studies. Much of the imagination of the Digital Natives carries the baggage of false dichotomies and binaries of discourse around technologically mediated identities. Within cybercultures studies, as well as in earlier interdisciplinary work on digital internets, there has been an explicit and now an implied division of the physical and the virtual. The virtual seems to be a world only loosely anchored in the material and physical reality, and almost seems to be at logger heads with the real in producing its own hyper-visual reality. These distinctions, though not often invoked, are present in different imaginations of the Digital Natives. They seem to reside in virtual worlds producing a ‘disconnect’ from their everyday reality. The alternative public spheres of speech and expression created by the rise of the blogosphere and peer-to-peer networking sites seem to reside only within the digital domain. The frenzied cultural production and consumption on sites like YouTube and Second Life are contained within digital deliriums. Similarly, when attention is paid to Digital Natives and their activities, it is confined to what they do, inhabit, consume and produce online, often forgetting their embodied presence circumscribed by different contexts.
The notion of contexts, as it is relevant and important to understand techno-social identities, is even more crucial when talking about Digital Natives. Contextualised understanding of their environments, histories, and engagement help us to realise that Digital Native is not a universal identity. Even though the technologies that they use are often global in nature, and the tools and gadgets they employ are shared across borders, the way a digital native identity is constructed and experienced is different with different contexts. As we see, in the case of the flash-mobs and the Baidupedia, the digital native, especially when it comes to social transformation and political participation, is a fiercely local and context based identity and community. It is because of this, that Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory (2005) actually makes sense – that the Digital Natives, when they do utilise digital tools for social transformation or mobilisation, will not go in search for new tools. Instead, they will use the existing platforms and spaces that they are already using to share pictures of cute cats across the globe. The idea of a context based Digital Native identity also leads me to suggest two things to conclude this paper: The first, that Digital Natives are not merely people who are using new tools and technologies to augment the ideas of change and participation that an earlier, development-centric generation has grown up with. By introducing and experimenting with their aesthetic of fun, playfulness and irreverence, they are re-visiting the terrain of what it means to be political and often embedding their politics into seemingly inane or fruitless cultural productions, which create sustainable conditions of change. The second, that the Digital Natives, while they seem to be a different generation and having a unique technology-human relationship, are not really different when it comes to envisioning the role of youth-technology paradigm in the society. What is really different, with this young generation of active, interested and engaged  people, is that their local movements and actions are globally shared and accessed, thus forging, perhaps in unprecedented ways, international and cross-cultural communities of support, help and interest. Moreover, these communities subscribe to a new paradigm and vocabulary of socio-political change which is often tied to their every-day actions of entertainment, leisure, networking and cultural production, which provide the potential for the next big change that the Digital Natives set themselves to.


[1]. The term ‘techno-social’, coined by Arturo Escobar, refers to a social identity mediated by technology. It puts special emphasis that the digital and physical environments need to be seen in segue with each other rather than disconnected as is often the case in cybercultures and technology studies.

[2].A more serious political satire that moves beyond just punning and avoiding censorship was found in the now-deleted entry for revolutionary hero Wei Guangzheng (伟光正, taken from 伟大, 光荣, 正确, "great, glorious, correct"). An excerpt from it is included here for sampling.

Wei Guangzheng
Comrade Wei Guangzheng is a superior product of natural selection. In the course of competition for survival, because of certain unmatched qualities of his genetic makeup, he has a great ability to survive and reproduce, and hence Wei Guangzheng represents the most advanced state of species evolution. Here is the evolution of Wei Guangzheng's thinking: Since the day of his birth, comrade Wei Guangzheng established a guiding ideology for the people's benefit, and in the course of connecting it with the real circumstances of his beloved Sun Kingdom, a process of repeated comparisons that involved the twists and turns of campaigns of encirclement and suppression, his ideology finally realized a historic leap forward and generated two major theoretic achievements. The first great theoretic leap was the idea of leading a handful of people to take up arms to cause trouble, rebellion, and revolution in order to build a brave new world, and to successfully seize power. This was the "spear ideology." The second great theoretic leap was a theory, with Sun Kingdom characteristics, in which Wei Guangzheng was unswervingly upheld as leader and the people were forever prevented from standing up. This was the "shield theory." Under the guidance of these two great theoretic achievements, comrade Wei Guangzheng won victory after victory. Practice has proven, "Without Wei Guangzheng, there would be no Sun Kingdom." Following the road of comrade Wei Guangzheng was the choice of the people of the Sun Kingdom and an inevitable trend of historical development.

[3]Indeed, as Chris Jenks notes in his work on the construction of youth, through history, it is the function of civilisation to construct youth as not only an innocent category which needs to be saved but also a demonic identity which needs to be trained and taught into the roles and functions of civilisation. Each emergent technology of cultural production, in its turn, has been examined as potentially contributing to the notions of the youth and their role and function in the society.


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This research paper was published in Academia.edu. It can be downloaded here

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