Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Talking to the Digital Natives

The words "digital natives" have been falling out of favor with Internet researchers. It is even a term that has even achieved disrepute at the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, where the phrase was once regularly sprinkled in reports. To me, as I've explained, the words have sounded very much like nails on a chalkboard for a long time. I hate the way it calls up noble savages, natural competencies, and exotic others who feel content will maintaining a sharp generational divide in society. That's why the use of the phrase "digital natives" three times in the "Transparency Begins at Home" talk of the State Department's Richard Boly marred an otherwise good talk about in-house tools that diplomats are using to improve preparation and communication in a field with frequent dislocation and turnover by design.

In providing history of this federal department, he explained how in 1995 an e-mail could take two hours just to travel from one floor to another. Although "teaching diplomats how to type" proved to be a minor obstacle, the State Department had faced a number of other major obstacles in adopting new communications technologies, because of their dependence upon outdated Wang terminals at the dawn of the Microsoft Windows era.

As an example of one of the group's efforts to promote institutional memory, Boly pointed to Communities@State, which serves as the umbrella for a range of collaboratively oriented blogs from Afghan Strategic Communication to Japan Economic Scope. He also discussed Diplopedia and Deskipedia as part of their eDiplomacy initiatives, which focus on "knowledge management within the organization" rather than public diplomacy aimed abroad. As he explained, wikis often seemed particularly natural platforms for his agency's employees, because "there is a strong culture of editing in the State Department."

One of the most daring projects he discussed was "The Sounding Board," which serves as an "ideation tool" to encourage professional diplomats to make personal suggestions as individuals with first and last names who are assumed to be equal. The submissions come in unweighted without regard to job title, and then these suggestions can be voted either up or down by other participants. In this way Boly explained how an article on military training in Diplopedia emerged from a request for more formal training in military norms.

It is worth noting that Boly used the Prezi presentation tool. As a sign of his interest in software alternatives, it was a particularly significant choice, given that few at the conference chose any PowerPoint alternatives. For other examples of this particular form of digital rhetoric that I have observed on the conference circuit, see postings here and here.

He closed with a discussion on his department's efforts to "crowdsource" after the Haiti earthquake using SMS messaging and geolocation data with an Ushahidi program based in Tufts University.

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