Thursday, February 18, 2010

Black to the Future

S. Craig Watkins was the opening keynote speaker at the first Digital Media and Learning Conference sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation this evening, where he presented research about working class black and Latino youth and their use of media and technology that might have seemed counterintuitive just a few years ago, when a prominent study in 1998 was showing them on the disadvantaged side of a growing "digital divide."

In a talk titled "Living on the Digital Margins: How Black and Latino Youth are Remaking the Participation Gap," Watkins argued that these youth populations have become not only "early adopters" of computational media but also "resilient adopters" who must adapt to situations in which equipment is broken, access is blocked, and public spaces are surveiled.

Watkins was introduced by conference organizer Henry Jenkins who argued that the tone of the conference should be one appropriate for "new opportunities to struggle" rather than one of techno-utopian celebration in a conference that was to be characterized by "provocations" that opened with Jenkins calling up the spirit of John Fiske, who had shown how the same Rodney King tape that exposed police brutality could also be used to protect the abusers in court. He also argued that it was important to understand digital access in something other than binary terms, because young people didn't exist solely "in" or "out" of the digital. For those who had not heard him speak in recent years, he also reiterated his assertion that "participatory culture" should be distinguished from the business model "Web 2.0." Citing the work of Paula Petrick, he looked back to "Web -10" during the 1850s and 1860s, when young people created amateur presses contributed much to American civic life, along with the phrase "L.O.L." He also noted, as Cass Sunstein has argued, that digital architectures create "enclaves" that may exclude others.

In other words, the tenor of the conference was to reflect the attitude of many recently published academic titles about digital participation. In a Chronicle review of some of them by Siva Vaidhyanathan, he praised "a number of smart recent books that gently and eruditely warn us of the rising costs and risks of mindlessly diving into new digital environments—without, however, raising apocalyptic fears of the entire project."

They constitute an important "third wave" of work about the digital environment. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw books like Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital (Knopf, 1995) and Howard Rhein-gold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Addison-Wesley, 1993) and Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus, 2002), which idealistically described the transformative powers of digital networks. Then we saw shallow blowback, exemplified by Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008).

In Watkins' work on "the young and the digital," he extends his analysis of hip hop culture to look at the "flexible, open, and imaginative" use of mobile phones for games, music, and communication in which the Twitter feeds of members of these communities may reflect the activities of a "new town square" that invites "commentary and critique," as well as DIY activities, personal expression, peer-based learning, and taking pleasure in the spaces of leisure. To flesh out his own observations of informal interactions involving cellular devices, which were illustrated with beautiful phones and personalized display screens, he pointed to the Kaiser multi-year study of young people's screen time throughout the day in 1999, 2004, and 2009, which culminated in the report on Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, which showed people of color as heavier media consumers and more active users of social networks than their white counterparts, which only accelerated after their mass migration from MySpace to Facebook.

Watkins highlighted a number of specific points in his talk:

1) The role of cultural capital in the life of black youth cannot be underestimated, given the importance of "taste cultures" and attention to "one's self-presentation" in which one is expected to be devoted to "keepin' it real in the digital age" as minority populations work through their online "fantasies and identities."

2) Abilities to master valued "soft skills" and handle "code-switching" also matters to employers and admissions officers who may not be making judgments based on "hard skills" like traditional literacy or numeracy.

3) The politics of race and space still matters, and young people's engagement in creating and critiquing with digital media deserves attention. (He cited how victims of Hurricane Katrina used social network sites to reconnect and maintain relationships after the disaster.)

4) Public memorials and grieving may also be part of how digital engagement is measured. (He illustrated this point with the story of the death of Justin Mendez and his subsequent memorialization.)

However, Watkins also argued that is was important to pay attention to "digital gating and sorting." For example, even as Facebook becomes more diverse, according to the company's own metrics, it is still associated with the aspirations of white college students and the metaphors of respective virtual spaces may still be racially coded as young people leave "trashy" or "crowded" MySpace. As he explained the "mobile paradox" in which young people of color are online but not via desktop or laptop, he worried about the absence of intergenerational participation and adult supervision in many young people's Internet experiences and the effects of a rise of "sexting" in the population he was studying. Although he understood this as a logical response to the restrictions on use posed by libraries and community centers and a way to "remake geometries of power" in "home, school, and public spaces," he was concerned that they might be "hanging out" and "messing around" but not be "geeking out," in the words of a recent MacArthur report on "Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media" and not always successfully navigating between "friendship genres" and "interest genres" to be guided to civic participation.

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