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

John Sobol soboltalk at gmail.com
Fri Sep 2 16:34:44 UTC 2011

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.

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?

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.

I have written extensively about many of these ideas in my new book, *You
Are Your Media*. More here: www.youareyourmedia.com

John Sobol

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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