Friday, January 29, 2010

You Know Where They Sit in the Lunchroom

Yesterday I was one of the respondents to John Palfrey's talk as part of the "Youth & Digital Culture: A Workshop & Discussion" sponsored by the Center in Law, Society, and Culture. Palfrey is the co-author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives and the Co-Director of Harvard's Berkman Center, where I had the privilege to speak last May. Palfrey's work is well known for its collaborative spirit and appeal to public audiences, and this international project looking at the intersection between social science and policy with digital youth around the world was first developed at a collaborative website. Palfrey's own blog is here.

With his collaborator Urs Gasser, Palfrey describes himself as part of a group of "academics who want to speak to the policy debate" about young people online. He has often been at the center of some of the most heated debates about cyber-predators and legislation targeted against them, as the chair of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. These can be difficult debates to be involved in, because -- as I write in the opening chapter of the Virtualpolitik book -- members of both political parties are eager to score points by seeming tough about Internet crime and are willing to overlook both civil liberties and the reality that most sexual abuse is committed by parents and other loved ones who exploit their power in face-to-face situations. Too often, Palfrey said, Internet policy is shaped by "response to fears," and even lawyers like himself should acknowledge the limits of the law in governing social conduct, especially when conduct like downloading music illegally has become a cultural norm.

He apologized for being only able to give an overview of his "deep dives" that involve fieldwork in Bahrain, Shanghai, and South Korea, but he did announce his intention to use his brief talk to "bust a bunch of myths" that are popular in the mainstream media about kids born after 1980, whom he judges to be the "most empowered" by the digital revolution.

He opened his talk with an image of a pair of hands recognizable to almost all in the audience that show a close up of Barack Obama with his Blackberry, as an emblem of how interaction with computational media now had certain iconic representations associated with political authority, so complete has the transformation of society become. (It's an image that I would argue is suppressed in the current visual rhetoric of the White House, where Blackberries are to be checked at the door and instead Obama is shown repeatedly on a traditional corded phone.)

In a section called "I Blog Therefore I Am: Digital Identity," Palfrey noted the convergence of online and offline life for many young people, and -- as he showed images from Global Kids -- he observed how the avatar experience could be one of seeming power and control, and yet an onlooker might assemble their identities in ways that they might not imagine.

He also questioned how the rhetoric of multitasking was being promulgated and expressed his own preference for the term "switch-tasking," while also noting the possible unanticipated consequences of wiring classrooms not only to productivity but do the learning community's dynamic.

He even described how his own four-year-old daughter used a box camera on a vacation and how she was puzzled by not being able to see the pictures to delete bad shots and asked "Daddy, where are the pictures."

Although he granted that keyword searching habits could lead to information literacy problems and that media were not always as shareable as they appeared, he still pointed to syndication and aggregation technologies as those created by young people for young people that engaged them with code production, hacker culture, and the creative feedback loop, even if a "sophistication gap" still existed.

He then launched into several cluster concept areas in the book, starting with "Security," which in the mainstream media is associated with "stranger danger, bullying, hacking," although there has actually been a decrease in sexual predation since the online revolution. This was followed by a cluster around "Privacy" that included parental fears about "unintended audience," "persistence," "replicability," "searchability," and "unintended contributions" that are highlighted in popular journalistic accounts, although for Palfrey the real dangers lie in "identity theft," "digital record," and "continued erosion" of the privacy held dear by both young people and adults. He argued that the perception that teens didn't care about privacy anymore, since they seem to share everything from their personal lives in an exhibitionistic culture, actually didn't match the behavior and attitudes expressed by young people in his study.

His next cluster focused on the issue of "Intellectual Property," where "copyright issues" and "remix issues" take center stage. Palfrey warned that not only had the social norm of downloading become so strong that legal enforcement wouldn't change it, but that confusion about the complexities of copyright law and its four tests were encouraging many not to experiment and test the boundaries of fair use. This was followed by a "Credibility" cluster with "misinformation," "cheating," and "hidden influences" in its constellation, and then "Information Overload."

Palfrey argued that each issue presents both opportunities and costs, and that there were significant potential gains in expression as young people explore identity and media literacies and are empowered as creators and information generators. He also argued that this creativity could benefit what he called the "semiotic democracy" in which social production becomes more inclusive and accessible, which has consequences for knowledge creation, equity, democratic participation, autonomy, and cross-cultural community building, even if such a system may not directly lead to conventional forms of political participation or protest.

As he concluded, Palfrey focused the audience's attention on the "construct of a learning environment," one that might be less like the library of Oliver Wendell Holmes than traditionalists would prefer, but one capable of rich interactions and meaningful educational experiences.

He closed with a remarkable video created by one of the students working on the Digital Natives project about "Digital Dossiers" that highlights the importance of adaptation as a multimodal composition skill.

In response, I took issue with the rhetoric of the digital generation that I feared might cause policymakers to overestimate the computer literacy of the young and assume that learned behaviors were only expressions of natural facility.

In her comments, Mimi Ito provided a brief history of digital youth as the subject of analysis both in the academy and the mainstream media. She talked about the ongoing back-and-forth between "boosters" and critics and said that all three panelists were trying to present a more nuanced and complex representation of the digital youth landscape. She also said that her own research showed that both the boosters and the detractors were right, if they studied different populations of young people and that both Palfrey and I represented her favorite group to study: "geeks," who needed advocacy and understanding from the broader culture.

Moderator Mona Lynch has done a lot of interesting work about the Internet and capital punishment and the justice system, including work about "jailcams" and the push for online viewing of executions.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home