[iDC] In Search of the Other: Decoding Digital Natives

Nishant Shah itsnishant at gmail.com
Fri Oct 28 12:43:08 UTC 2011

Dear All,
I had written earlier around the question of Digital Natives as a
preparation to the Mobility Shifts summit earlier this month. It was a
pleasure to present at the Summit and present some of the research that we
have been doing the last couple of years. Continuing with the argumentation,
I am sharing this new blog that I have written for the Digital Media and
Learning blog at

I am replicating the text for people who don't want to click on the link.
Given how many people are working around these issues on this list, I hope
that this leads to an interesting discussion. I look forward to the

In Search of the Other: Decoding Digital Natives*

This is the first post of a research inquiry that questions the ways in
which we have understood the Youth-Technology-Change relationship in the
contemporary digital world, especially through the identity of ‘Digital
Native’. Drawing from three years of research and current engagements in the
field, the post begins a critique of how we need to look at the outliers,
the people on the fringes in order to unravel the otherwise celebratory
nature of discourse about how the digital is changing the world. In this
first post, I chart the trajectories of our research at the Centre for
Internet and Society <http://www.cis-india.org/> (Bangalore, India) and
Hivos <http://www.alliance2015.org/index.php?id=46> (The Hague, The
Netherlands) to see how alternative models of understanding these
relationships can be built.

The Digital Native has many different imaginations. From the short hand
understanding of ‘anybody who is born after the 1980s’ (Prensky, 2001) to
more nuanced definitions of populations who are ‘born digital’ (Palfrey &
Gasser, 2008), the digital native has firmly been ensconced in our visions
of technology futures. From DIY decentralized learning environments to viral
and networked forms of engagements that span from the Arab Spring to Occupy
Together, the Digital Native – somebody who has grown up with digital
technologies (and the skills to negotiate with them) as the default mode of
being – has become central to how we see usage and proliferation of new
digital tools and technologies.

Three years ago, when the identity Digital Native was already in currency
but before the overwhelming examples that are now so easily available in the
post MENA (Middle East-North Africa) world, we asked ourselves the question:
“What does a Digital Native look like?” When we started sifting through the
literature (published and grey), practice-based discourse and policy, we
started spotting certain patterns: Digital Natives were almost always young,
white, (largely male) middle class, affluent, English speaking populations
who could afford education and were located in developed Information and
Communication Technologies (ICT) contexts of ubiquitous connectivity. These
users of technology were treated as the proto-type around which digital
natives in the ‘rest of the world’ were imagined. The ‘rest of the world’
was not necessarily an exotic geography elsewhere, but often was a person
whose relationships with the digital were impeded by class, education,
gender, sexuality, literacy etc.

Moreover, we found that the accounts of Digital Natives that were being
discussed across the board were accounts of super stars. They either
heralded the digital native as the young messiah who is drastically changing
the world, overthrowing governments and building collaborative and
participatory structures of openness. Or they feared the digital native as
an unthinking, self contained, dysfunctional person who pirates and
plagiarizes and needs to be rehabilitated into becoming a civic individual.
Very little was said about Everyday Digital Natives – users who, through the
presence of digital technologies, were changing their lives on an everyday

*Other Digital Natives*

Based on this, we began the quest for the Other Digital Natives – people who
did not necessarily fit the existing models of being digital but who often
had to strive to ‘Become Digital’ and in the process produce possibilities
and potentials for social change and political participation in their
immediate environments. This was the first step to discover what being a
digital native would be in emerging ICT contexts, where connectivity,
access, usage, affordability, geo-political regulation, and questions of the
biological and of living would give us new understandings of what a digital
native is. This quest for the Other inspired us to work across Asia, Africa
and Latin America, to talk to some of the most strident voices in the region
who claimed to be digital natives, expressed discomfort with being called
digital natives, refused to be called digital natives, and sought to provide
critique of the existing expectations of digital nativity. The proceedings
from these conversations in the Global South have been consolidated in the
book *Digital AlterNatives With a
* available for free download.

For this post, I want to look at some of the presumptions in existing
understanding of Digital Natives and how we can contest them to build
Digital AlterNative identities.

*Presumption 1: Digital Natives are always young.*

Even if we go by Mark Prensky’s problematic definition that everybody born
after the 1980s is a digital native, we must realize that there is a large
chunk of digital native users who are now in their thirties. They are in
universities, work forces, governments and offices. They have not only grown
older with technologies but they have also radically changed the
technologies and tech platforms that they inhabit.

It is time to let go of the Peter-Pan imagination of a Digital Native as
always perpetually young. Moreover, we must realize that digital natives
existed even before the name ‘Digital Native’ came into existence. There
were people who built internets, who might not have been young but were
still native to the digital environments that they were a part of.

Instead of looking at a youth-centric, age-based exclusive definition of a
digital native, it is more fruitful to say that people who natively interact
with digital technologies – people who are able to inhabit the remix, reuse,
share cultures that digitality produces, might be marked as digital

*Presumption 2: Digital Natives are born digital.*

It does sound nice – the idea that there were people who were born as
preconfigured cyborgs, interacting with interfaces from the minute they were
born. And yet, we know that people are taught to interact with technologies.
True, technologies often define our own conceptions of who we are and how we
perceive the world around us, but there is still a learning curve that is
endemic to human technology relationships.

Because of the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of certain kinds of
technology mediated interaction, it is sometimes difficult to look at our
habits of technology as learned interactions. Recognizing that there is a
thrust, an effort and an incentive produced for people to Become Digital, is
also to recognize that there are different actors, players, promoters and
teachers who help young people enter into relationships with technologies,
which can often be greater than the first interactions.

*Presumption 3: Digital Natives live digital lives.*

This is a concern voiced by many people who talk about digital natives. They
are posited as slacktivists – removed from their material realities and
apathetic to the physical world around them. They are painted as
dysfunctional screenagers who are unable to sustain the fabric of social
interaction and community formation outside of social networking systems.
They are discussed as a teenage mutant nightmare that unfolds almost
entirely in the domains of the digital.

But these kinds of imaginations forget that a digital native is not
primarily a digital native, or at least, not exclusively digital. Being a
digital native is one of many identities these users appropriate. The
digital often serves as a lens that informs all their other socio-cultural
and political interactions, but it is not an all-containing system. The
bodies that click on ‘Like’ buttons on Facebook are also often the bodies
that fill up the streets to fight for their rights. The division between
Physical Reality and Virtual Reality needs to be dismissed to build more
comprehensive accounts of digital native practices.

*Presumption 4: Connectivity is digitality.*

This is often an easy conflation. It is presumed that once one has constant
connectivity, one will automatically become a digital native. Especially in
policy and development based approaches, connectivity and access have become
the buzzwords by which the digital divide can be breached. However, we have
now learned that this one-size, fits-all solution actually fits nobody.
Being connected – by building infrastructure and affording gadgets – does
not make somebody a digital native.

The digital native identity needs to be more than mere access to the
digital. It involves agency, choice, critical literacy and fluency with the
digital media that we live with. So instead of thinking of anybody who is
connected as a digital native, we are looking at people who are
strategically able to harness the powers of the digital to produce a change
in their immediate environments. These changes can range from making
personal collections of media to mobilising large numbers of people for
political protests. To be digital is to be intimately connected with the
technologies so that they can augment and amplify the ways in which we
respond to the world around us.

I offer these as the building blocks of looking at the ‘Other’ of the
Digital Natives as we have discursively produced them. From hereon, in my
subsequent posts, I hope to drill deeper to locate nuances and differences,
concepts and frameworks that we need to map in order to build a digital
native model that is inclusive, differential and context based.

Nishant Shah
Director (Research), Centre for Internet and Society,( www.cis-india.org )
Asia Awards Fellow, 2008-09
# 00-91-9740074884
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