Centre for Internet & Society

Demystifying the mysterious -agents changing the world around you.

I met somebody last night who called herself a digital dinosaur. She grew up in the ’80s, got her first computer in the ’90s, trained herself as a geek, found a career as a coder (moonlighted as a hacker), helped people create their personal web pages, and has worked in the IT industry for more than a decade now. In her day, she was the cyber-guru, instructing friends, families, acquaintances and people who wrote to her on the dos and don’ts of cyber-living. And now, she finds herself strangely disconnected from Web 2.0, which is expanding faster than we can understand it.

Her relationship with Internet technologies was one of creation; coding, cracking, hacking, controlling the world in binaries, in bits and in bytes, and that world is now receding.

The new wave of Internet users, who are Born Digital, relate to technologies in new ways. Coding has become the domain of the professional developer and programming is limited to a handful of geeks.

These digital natives occupy environments where it is more about game and expression. Their relationship with the internet is about creation and dissemination of information. They create networks and webs of relationships, with machines and people alike. They treat their gadgets as extensions of themselves and map their physical lives on to their virtual worlds. They are different, even from the earlier generation of technocrats, in how they relate to and understand the new technologies.

Digital natives are everywhere. They are in universities and colleges, multitasking, preparing a classroom presentation while chatting with friends and tracking their online gaming avatars. They occupy offices, glued with equal passion, to dating or social networking sites, and moderating geek mailing lists.

We chance upon them in homes and bedrooms, sharing their most intimate details using live cam feeds and audio/video podcasts. If these images are familiar to you, you have encountered a digital native. It might have, recently, been a child who knows how to use the mobile phone more effectively than you do, or a teenager who can connect your machine online while thumb-typing on the cell-phone, in a language which is not very familiar to you.

It could also be the saucy colleague in office, who is always on the information highway, making jazzy presentations or playing games with his virtual avatar, or the taxi driver who has learned the power of GPS maps or even the chaiwallah who uses his mobile phone to download new music and conduct a romantic affair.

It is no surprise then that the digital natives appear mystifying, slightly frightening figures to those around them. Parents are concerned that they are losing touch with these youth who inhabit first and Second Lives seamlessly. Teachers lament that they value everyday cultural production on YouTube and blogs over canons and classics.

Policymakers are worried that they unwittingly break law and regulations through peer-to-peer sharing of information. Cultural industries are startled at how they produce as much as they consume, using easily available inexpensive tools to push the boundaries of cultural production; remixing, distorting, morphing and harvesting the potential of digital objects.

While many of these concerns are serious and need to be addressed, this column tries to focus on demystifying the digital native. Across borders, digital natives have been responsible for changing the contours of our world. They have fought repressive governments, like we saw in Iran’s Twitter revolution. They have mobilised people to challenge fundamentalism (the Pink Chaddi campaign in India). They have come to the aid of the needy and the ailing, like we saw during the recent natural disasters in Chile and Taiwan.

Digital natives are behind awareness initiatives to protect their privacy and right to information on social networking sites like Facebook.

They have changed the way knowledge is produced and consumed on online encyclopaedias like Wikipedia. They demand better education, transform their societies and show us the familiar through strange and uncanny lenses. Around the globe, in developed and developing information societies, digital natives are introducing radical changes that recalibrate our reality even as we live it.

Read the article in the Indian Express

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