Centre for Internet & Society
On Natives, Norms and Knowledge

Philip Ketzel

Philip Ketzel reviews Ben Wagner's essay "Natives, Norms and Knowledge: How Information Technologies Recalibrate Social & Political Power Relations Communications" published in Book 4: To Connect.

On Natives, Norms and Knowledge

Philip Ketzel

Using digital technologies has become so convenient that with the rise of the so called digital revolution arose also the need to reflect it. A very impressive compilation of reflections dealing with the role and impact of the “user” (or digital native, as it is now called) comes in the form of a four book collective called Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? by the Centre for Internet & Society and Hivos. The fourth book features Ben Wagner’s essay Natives, Norms and Knowledge: How Information and Communications Technologies Recalibrate Social and Political Power Relations. It is a text I strongly recommend, especially to those interested in the reasons behind contemporary policies that try to regulate digital activism such as the US SOPA Act.

Wagner starts out by recapitulating the fact that, as any technological progress, the digital revolution has produced profound cultural changes. In order to make these changes more visible and to question their implications, he analyses the ways in which they can be understood as shifts of "sociological, normative and knowledge boundaries" (p. 22).Yet behind every boundary lies a legitimising process setting it up. Hence, Wagner is also interested in the discourses and institutions that legitimise these shifts of boundaries.

So where and how are the boundaries being shifted?

For example, there is the fact that now more people have the power to influence what we call reality or history. Wagner points out that this new power is socially seen less evenly distributed than one would hope. He says "it  seems  that  the  existing  elite  has simply  expanded  and  been  complemented  by  an  additional  'digital  elite'." (p. 22) Though the old-school elite still holds some aces up their sleeves in order to keep this new 'digital elite', respectively digital natives, under control. This is for instance, according to Wagner, reflected in the ways the media keeps producing and sustaining stereotypes of the unsocial nerd, which makes it possible to easily stigmatise subversive elements such as Mr. Assange.

Analysing the effects of this newly gained power, Wagner looks at the norms set up by digital natives. Instead of pining down a list of certain norms, he has a much better approach by saying:

[T]he tools provided by the internet have unmasked pre-existing norms which were not previously evident. The tools of the internet bring these norms to the surface by allowing  for  their  practise  an  environment  which seems  to  offer  endless  opportunities  to  those connected to it. (p. 24)

So we’re dealing with a new playground on which the digital natives seem to dominate the rule defining process. This makes it problematic for the political system, as its purpose is to keep social order and also to acknowledge, reflect and integrate certain shifts of norms. As an example for such a critical discourse, Wagner refers to the rise of the Pirate Party.

However, this establishment of a new social order is strongly correlated with a re-bordering of knowledge, as Wagner states. On the one hand there are those who seek to open up knowledge borders by for example sharing files, while on the other hand there are those who call for more restrictions because they fear a digital "wild west culture" (p. 26) or a destruction of their position. Both sides have valid points, and Wagner correctly highlights the conflict a society faces when this re-bordering process "takes place outside of realms where it can be contested." (p. 28)

This review is part of the Tweet-a-Review event organized by the ‘Digital Natives with a Cause? Project and is republished here from Philip Ketzel’s blog.

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