Unpacking Digital Natives from their Shiny Packaging

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 25, 2011 05:04 AM
The ‘Digital natives’ concept is neither necessarily nor inherently positive, as YiPing Tsou highlights in her article Digital Natives in the Name of a Cause: From "Flash Mob" to "Human Flesh Search". The essay was published in the Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? Book 2, To Think. Argyri Panezi reviews the essay.
Unpacking Digital Natives from their Shiny Packaging

Argyri Panezi

In this article, the writer supports that China, despite having a plethora of hacker talents, does not conform to the typical paradigm of liberal, usually anti-government, group of digital natives. She explains that the so-called “red hackers” are working hand-in-hand with the dominant ideology, fighting against the enemy abroad while hunting down the enemy within who disrupts the ‘harmony’ (of the nation). Focusing on China’s digital culture, Tsou demonstrates that digital natives, despite what is commonly thought of them as a universal group, can also engage in far from civic-minded activities. The stories of Human Flesh Search as described in the article, gives flesh to this argument.   

‘Human Flesh Search’ is a Chinese phenomenon of online crowdsourcing that targets ‘morality violators’ (the modern versions of medieval witches). Most importantly, the punishment meted out to these ‘violators’ is not only harsh (the mob versus an individual) but also reaches beyond cyberspace, affecting the real lives of the one who’s hunted, even affecting the lives of their family. All the examples given, illustrate how this ‘naming-and-shaming’ trend becomes an insidious calling card of the entire hacking society in China.

As Tsou explains, Human Flesh Searches mobilize masses of people online or offline to identify certain violators of ‘morality’ that the community seeks to punish because the ‘crimes’ might not be punishable by the law. Indeed, the Human Flesh Search stories bring in mind B-grade reality shows: as the first story goes, the real identity of a woman staring in a kitten-killing video is discovered and consequently, the woman is attacked both in cyberspace (via email, social media networks) and in real space (her residence, work place). Another story seems more serious, mainly from a political and legal perspective; a student expressing himself in favor of a Korean ruling in a sports game is immediately dealt by the online community as a traitor who has to pay for what he has said online. What seems to follow, within these stories, are blatant violations of privacy and freedom of speech.   
What message do the Human Flesh Searches stories convey? What are these stories teaching us? While Internet enthusiasts have connected digital natives with progressive liberal movements, it is also the case that some can be (ab)using the powers of technology, and principally the power of crowd-sourcing, engaging in phenomena that even recap medieval witch-hunt. It is clear that the rationale of the author is not to call for more regulation or censorship online, but rather to point out that technology and the Internet is merely a tool, and as every tool it can have both good and bad uses; a knife might be used safely in a kitchen, it can save lives in the hands of a doctor, and can take lives in the hand of a murderer.

Tsou cleverly alternates between the phrases ‘wisdom of the crowd’, ‘crowd-sourcing’ and ‘irrationality of the crowds’. While the majority can collaborate to get brilliant results, it can also quickly become a tyranny against anything ‘different’, ‘irregular’ or ‘immoral’. Wikipedia is a famous example of the first (a success story of mass collaboration) but also the second (see the editing wars on Wikipedia talk pages).          

In all, Tsou effectively reminds us that the aspiring digital stories of peer-to-peer culture and civic empowerment, including technology-mobilized revolutions such as the recent examples in the Middle East and elsewhere, do have a counter side, what the author calls “the dark force of digital natives”. The importance of this realization is immense. Internet romanticism can be at the very least naïve, and at most dangerous as it gives space to the abusers to continue their work using a tool that is wrongly considered solely equalizing, empowering, liberating.    

Argyri Panezi, a native of Greece, studied law at the University of Athens and at Harvard Law School (focusing on issues of Internet law and policy), now practicing as an attorney at law in Brussels, Belgium.

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