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

Nishant Shah itsnishant at gmail.com
Fri Sep 2 17:13:36 UTC 2011

Hey John,
Thank you for this response. I am as intrigued about your reading of
post-colonial resistance in my writing (which was designed as a provocation
and I hope it begins an interesting conversation) as much as the idea that
all Digital Natives can indeed be thought of as Digital Outcasts. I will try
and reply to some of your points in-line and hope that the two subsequent
reflections I am going to make the next two days, will also help throw light
on my take on the "Myth of the Digital Native"

On Fri, Sep 2, 2011 at 10:04 PM, John Sobol <soboltalk at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hello Nishant,
> thanks for your thought-provoking post.
> I understand your desire not to replicate traditional colonial biases - in
> thought or in action - as you connect non-western youth to digital tools and
> networks. And I understand that by creating this identity of Digital Outcast
> you are trying to flip that script. My own analysis is somewhat different,
> but suggests that on one level you may have succeeded to a much greater
> degree than you realize.
> For somebody who lives in a post-colonial context, it is sometimes
difficult to recognise that my positions draw upon PoCo scholarship and
debates almost instinctively. Indeed, one of the ambitions for the project
"Digital Natives with a Cause?" (note the question mark at the end) was to
resist this idea of the 'native' as the informant, the mimic, the subaltern
(with or without voice). At the same time, there was a pressure from many
peers and practitioners who had already started disowning the name 'Digital
Native' because of the very colonial problems that you reference. However,
we resisted this impulse of dis-association and insisted on staying with the
name because we wanted to unpack the legacies and presumptions that have
marked at least 10 years of scholarship in that area.

I have written in more detail about the politics of this naming at
http://cis-india.org/digital-natives/publications/position-paper/view and
indeed, we have a lot of different discussion in my upcoming book (Edited)
"Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?" In a quick short-hand though, it was
more interesting for us to not discard the 'Digital Native' as a name but
instead treat it as a 'found name' - something that does not have
pre-defined meanings but can instead be used as a placeholder that can be
bombarded with so much meaning that it loses the geo-political and youth
based determinacy that it brings with it. So I would suggest that I am not
seeking to overthrow the Digital Native by the Digital Outcast - the
epistemic violence would be the same, to say the least.

Instead, the attention has been to look at the specific constructions of
Digital Native identities - mapping stakeholders, practices, discourse,
policy etc.

It is curious to me that it has become so widely accepted that the Digital
> Native is a myth. You too describe the Digital Native as 'imaginary' yet you
> describe that imaginary person as an "incessantly connected, globally
> networked individual that navigates the intricate paths of information
> exchange and knowledge production online". How is this kind of person
> imaginary? And if there is such a thing as Digital Culture, which there is,
> why should some people not be native to it?

Which helps me segue into your next question. I want to nuance this out
properly because I have a feeling we are actually talking on the same side
of the coin here. I agree with you that the digital native is not a myth. It
might be a name that might have preempted a certain population as being
recognised 'Digital Native' but I refuse to believe that Digital Natives do
not exist. In fact, the exact phrase that I use is "Imaginary of a digital
native" as opposed to "imagination of a digital native" or "Imagined digital
native" with a specific impulse. For me, the Imaginary is about the ways in
which real life, reified practices get extracted into an abstraction, which
then makes the material practice invisible. There is a certain way by which
the digital native imaginary - a set of characteristics that 'define' what a
digital native is (though more often than not, they define what a digital
native does) and in the process produce extraordinary exclusions for people
who might be digital natives but would not qualify to own that name. The
politics of the project was to actually dismantle such Imaginaries that
disguise themselves as identities and refuse to understand the practices of
people in different parts of the world. My argument is not against the
possibility of people being native to a culture; Au contraire, the research
impulse has been to de-construct (I hyphenate it for obvious reasons) this
self contained imagination of who is a native and open up the possibility of
various practices and engagements (often located in emerging ICT contexts)
to be recognised and counted as digitally native.

I want to borrow an argument that we had worked in our workshops in Asia,
Africa and Latin America: We presume that we know what a digital native is.
When we hear that name, we almost already know the kind of body that would
be able to own or belong to that identity/name. What it does in practice is
to invalidate a whole range of people who might be doing different things
which cannot be accounted for, by the existing Imaginary. When researchers
take this 'digital native' name as something that we already know, they then
look at things (or people) that fit that bill and people (or things) that
don't. Instead, can we begin by saying that we don't know what the digital
native is? Can we begin by looking at one person, any person, and say, this
is a digital native. And now let us see if we can understand what goes into
the making of that identity.

> In my opinion the Myth of the Digital Native is itself a myth, propagated
> primarily by those with a vested interest in colonizing digital natives.
> Specifically, members of literate cultures deny the existence of a digital
> epistemology or digital psychodynamics the same way they have marginalized
> and expunged oral ways of knowing and being from the literate architectures
> of power and knowledge. In other words, in my opinion, not only do Digital
> Natives exist, but all Digital Natives are all essentially Digital Outcasts.
> For they represent and participate in an emergent culture that directly
> challenges many of the fundamental social values of the literate culture
> that currently rules our world.
> Thus if you want to avoid replicating colonial thinking, the first step is
> to realize that the defining feature of colonial culture is not its
> Europeanness, or its whiteness, or its maleness or its heterosexuality or
> its expansionism or its cruelty but its *technology*, and specifically its
> communication technology. India was not primarily colonized by Britain but
> by literate culture, and if you want to use digital tools to counter that
> colonial legacy and empower youth - in India or anywhere else in the world -
> then the goal should be to build bridges between digitalists of all ages
> everywhere, rather than to create unnecessary new distinctions between them.

Which brings me to the last point about the Digital Outcast. Why, then,
would I want to still hold on to the idea of a Digital Outcast? Among many
reasons it is because we wanted to read against the grain of what it means
to be a digital native. I quite like the idea of framing all digital natives
(because everybody is a digital native!) as potentially a digital outcast.
But I was also making the 'Digital Outcast' perform another set of labour -
which was to imagine that the world is divided into Natives, Settlers and
Immigrants.Digital Outcasts actually help us to build the bridges that you
are calling for because the outcast is a relational category rather than an
absolute one.

For me, it was a useful category to think about the 'Other' of the digital
native and look at specificities of exclusion, resistance, and
marginalisation which are not globally homogeneous phenomena. The need to
ground the digital native not only as the grand warrior or the psychopath
criminal (the two exotic positions afforded them by a wide range of
literature) but as an everyday person whose life gets significantly
restructured by the presence of technology (both in terms of usage and
paradigm) was fruitful to me.

I hope to write more on this in the next reflection tomorrow, but thank you
very much for bringing out these questions. I do see the danger that you are
signalling to - of repeating colonial hierarchies to produce PoCo knowledges
as counterproductive; I have learned those lessons especially from post
colonial feminists (though they might not call themselves that) and I
appreciate the caution. However, I hope that these responses help you better
understand that kinds of 'work' I am making the "Digital Outcast" perform.

> I have written extensively about many of these ideas in my new book, *You
> Are Your Media*. More here: www.youareyourmedia.com
> Regards,
> John Sobol
> I shall look forward to reading more of your work but also from other peers
in the group.


> On Fri, Sep 2, 2011 at 6:34 AM, Nishant Shah <itsnishant at gmail.com> wrote:
>>  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.
>> Warmly
>> Nishant
>> --
>> Nishant Shah
>> Director (Research), Centre for Internet and Society,( www.cis-india.org)
>> Asia Awards Fellow, 2008-09
>> # 00-91-9740074884
>> http://www.facebook.com/nishant.shah
>> http://cis-india.academia.edu/NishantShah
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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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