[iDC] From Digital Natives to Digital Outcasts: Reflection 1

Nishant Shah itsnishant at gmail.com
Fri Sep 2 10:34:02 UTC 2011

Dear All,

I have been following up the discussions on the list with great interest,
even though my status so far has been ‘largely lurking’. I take this
opportunity to throw open some of the questions that I, at the Centre for
Internet and Society Bangalore (http://www.cis-india.org) have been working
through, especially in relation to this strange thing called a ‘Digital
Native’. In this first of the 3 reflections I am writing for the group, I
want to begin by charting the shift that marked our own understanding of
youth-technology relationships. I shall end today by offering you a
conceptual identity that I am trying to formulate right now and hope that
you will join me in adding to or questioning this idea.

Let me begin by talking about things that I am more familiar with – Digital
Natives. In the last 3 years, in a research collaboration with Hivos
(Netherlands), through a knowledge programme called “Digital Natives with a
Cause?” we have worked with young(ish) users of technologies who have a
stake in social transformation and political participation, in order to
understand the affective and effective relationships that users have with
the techno-political apparatus they are within. The research has been a huge
learning experience for us as the digital natives (no fixed definition, no
capitals) opened up ways in which they understand and engage with the
information ecologies they are embedded in.

Hence we conceptualised the idea of an everyday digital native - somebody
whose life has been significantly restructured by the presence of digital
and internet technologies - interested in effecting change in his/her
immediate environments. Especially with these users located in the Global
South (bits of Asia, Africa and Latin America), where ‘digitality’ is not to
be taken for granted and remains a privilege contained to a few,
conversations were as much about these technosavvy cybertots as they were
about those who remain flung to the fringes, tentatively on the borders of
the digital and the technological.

We quickly came to examine the imaginary of a digital native – the almost
Peter Pan like, always young, incessantly connected, globally networked
individual that navigates the intricate paths of information exchange and
knowledge production online – in order to see what were the common sets of
presumptions which were built into, often conflicting and contradictory
approaches and analyses premised on this particular identity. The research
questioned the age based, geo-politically marked, gendered notion of the
digital native that seems to make oblivious the traditional axes of
discrimination, exclusion and violence. There was a call to start thinking
of the binary other of the digital native – most debates would call these
digital immigrants or settlers; or in another context (ICT4D) these would be
called the have-nots or the digitally disempowered. In both these
formulations, we found easy solutions provided within popular discourse:
Solutions which thought of greater infrastructure and access as an answer.

However, in order to actually understand the digital natives’ problems
within the digitally amplified and networked systems within which we imagine
they exist, we searched for a Digital AlterNative and eventually started
working with the idea of a Digital Outcast (Shafika Isaacs) or the Digital
HaveLess (Jack Qui). This particular idea of the digital outcast – somebody
who is within the pervasive technology paradigms but not necessarily the
mainstream prosumer of the Web 2.0 revolutions – was fruitful to escape the
dominant battle-lines within Digital Natives discourse.

*First*, it allowed us let go of the age-based idea of a digital native,
discarding the idea of being born a digital native and instead focusing on
processes of becoming a digital native. We stopped talking about natives,
immigrants and settlers and instead looked at this particular identity that
is within the digital circuits, imagined as its recipient beneficiary and
yet persuasively kept at the borders.

*Second,* we shifted the conversation about the digital divide – the
dissonant gap between the haves and have-nots of internet technologies –
from questions of infrastructure and access (which appear as the standard
solutions to these questions) to a more nuanced discussion of literacy and
acumen. The digital outcast is not somebody who doesn’t have access to the
technologies; s/he is somebody who, after the access has been granted, fails
to actualise the transformative potentials of technologies for the self or
for others.

*Third,* it enabled us to short-circuit the idea of digital users as
contained in a technosocial bubble, adrift in alternative realities.
Instead, we focused them within a larger politics of inclusion, rights and
engagement. Looking at other regional specificities of marginalisation,
exclusion and discrimination, in their geopolitical and socio-cultural
locations helps understand the ways in which digital and internet
technologies enmesh themselves in the local.

The Digital Outcast, then, became a way by which the outsider insider of the
digital worlds can contest the popular perceptions and discourse around
digital native identities and practices. The Digital Outcast is not simply
the have-not who shall be included in the system once we have enough
infrastructure to breach the last mile. The Digital Outcast was not merely a
disenfranchised or disempowered because of lack of access to digital and
technological resources. The Digital Outcast, in many ways, resounded Hannah
Arendt’s formulation of the ‘Stateless’ as somebody who is the beneficiary
of the Rights bestowed by the State but does not know how to exercise
his/her ‘right to having rights’.

The Digital Outcast began to shape our understanding of how these bodies at
the fringes, even though they are the intended beneficiaries of the digital
development plans, often stay on the fringes of our imagination when we
conceive of the digital divide or the digital native.

I offer to you the Digital Outcast as a non-actualised but realised
identity, which has been created, accounted for, and resolved by
technological apparatuses, and thus rendered a-political and impotent in the
discourses of digital learning and politics. I am going to stop here today
and tomorrow look at some specific imaginations of technology mediated
rights, justice and learning vis-à-vis digital natives/outcasts in India,
specifically locating them within the higher education systems of university
based learning. In the meantime, it would be really helpful if you can help
me think through this idea of the Digital Outcast and what would be its
implications on your practice and thought.



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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