Digital Native: Twin Manifestations or Co-Located Hybrids

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 23, 2011 04:36 AM
Samuel Tettner reviews ‘Digital Natives and the Return of the Local Cause’ from Book 1: To Be. The essay is authored by Anat Ben-David.
Digital Native: Twin Manifestations or Co-Located Hybrids

Samuel Tettner

Ben-David’s piece is a well-articulated and informed attempt to resolve two of the several conceptual fuzziness of the term “Digital Native”. She attempts this in a philosophical manner: trying to move away from the ontological “who are Digital Natives?” to an epistemological “when and where are Digital Natives?” Her reasoning is that this perceptive change will allow us to unpack the duplicity of a hybrid term and to understand if it refers to a unique phenomenon in the world worth exploring.

To answer the when and the where, Ben-David situates the term into its constituencies: digital and native, contextualizing the words using two approaches; historiographical (when) for the digital and geopolitical (where) for the native.

The digital is semantically pin-pointed in the short but active history of information technology within an activism framework, to use a broad word. The author then places two events side to one: First the 1999 manifestations against World-trade Organization protests in Seattle and then the 2011 Tahir Square protests in Egypt. Are these two phenomena different in nature? Is Tahir Square a more technologically advanced version of Seattle? Are the basic mechanisms the same, albeit with new faces and shinier phones?

Ben-David postulates three reasons for placing the manifestations on a different trajectory. First, “The Internet” of 1999 and “The Internet” of 2011 are distinctively not the same thing. The second is that the demographic constituting the protest are not the same: in 1999 they were mostly Civic Society Organization (CSO) employees and volunteers, while in Tahrir they were mostly civilians and concerned citizens connected through their local networks.

The third concerns the spatial and symbolic nature of the protests. In Seattle, the protests were against large transnational corporations; Seattle was chosen because it hosted the World Trade Organization that year. In Egypt, the protest was directed against local corruption and concerned itself with local governance issues. Tahir Square was chosen because the protests were directly about, of and in Egypt.

Which brings us to the where. The ‘Native’ is used by Ben-David to refer to the ongoing structural shifts towards localized activism campaigns. This change came with the growing realization that transnational activism campaigns that tried to effect change across loosely cohesive cross-sections of the world, tended to lose touch with their points of origin and remain in suspended animation. Local campaigns seem to be more responsive and agile, specially in their ability to enter into dialogues with the needs of local populations. The spontaneity of action, the granular level of the causes, and the lowered threshold of the agents and initiators are some of the aspects Ben-David sees in emergent campaigns, which are critically different from activism campaigns in the past. 

Of course, the location and the time intertwine eventually. A growing trend in the development of the digital world has been the localization of frameworks, methodologies and approaches. The author’s use of Richard Roger’s four stages of the evolution of politics about the web is outstanding: It shows us without telling us that the distinction between when and where is purely analytical and that they really are a single entity of the time-space continuum.

Ben-David succeeds in contextualizing both the digital and the native as different sides of the same coin: as two manifestations of the growth and maturation process that technology-mediated activism has been through over the last 10 years. The result is an internally-consistent perspective which sees Digital Natives habituating hybrid-timespaces alongside heterogeneous actors, where the relationship between the local and the global is contingent, transitory, dynamic – and knowledge can be transformed and adapted to fit actors and their causes.

This review is part of the Tweet-a-Review event organized by the ‘Digital Natives with a Cause? Project and is republished here from Samuel Tettner’s blog.

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