Digital Natives, take 2

In Ithaca, I am the guest of the Cornell LLM Association for its event on “Emerging Legal Challenges for International Law in the Cyber Age,” the 3rd annual LLM Inter-University Conference — quite a cool thing, and I’m grateful to be here. It’s lovely on campus. People seem in a great mood.

But what do they mean exactly, I wonder, by the “Cyber Age”?

It has me thinking about the idea of Digital Natives. The term has been in use for some years, maybe first coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 in an article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” It’s a helpful challenge, to try to understand what changes, in law and society, as a generation comes of age whose members have not had to learn digital things, but rather have always interacted in a digital environment. It seems to me that this orientation is helpful in looking across a set of issues.

The hallmarks of the generation that is now in universities, and about to join the workforce, are a bit different than when Prensky wrote his article, but some of the challenges are the same. I think that we’re already into a second Cyber Age, perhaps, and a first true generation of Digital Natives (I know, it’s so cool to call things on the web “2.0” these days, but it seems relevant here, too, somehow). The first generation and set of issues was framed by Nicholas Negroponte on the front end; it was the world that Lawrence Lessig captured so effectively in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace in 1999. Many of those issues, especially of control and of the interaction between technologies and law and markets and social norms, persist. The opportunities, though, have only gotten greater — and the stakes for understanding this new crop of digital natives all that much higher.

One important attribute is the shift from consumers of information in the media environment to digital natives who are at once consumers, creators, and evaluators of information in digital form. These creators do their art in written, audio, video, and mashed-up formats, often online, always digitally. They use MySpace and Facebook and LiveJournal; they blog, podcast, make music, make art, borrow stuff, reuse stuff, steal some stuff; they IM and Skype and text more than “call long distance.” They multitask and love massive multiplayer online games, as Beth Noveck (the “Queen of Video Games” in the legal scholarship world) has observed. They have Second Lives.

Another is the aspect that Prensky focused on: they are different kinds of students. The manner in which digital natives learn, and digital immigrants teach — and the widening gulf between them — is still poorly understood. Pedagogically, we teachers are in a weird place.

Then there’s the digital workforce, as these students prepare to enter into the job market: how they look for jobs and how they do them is different from even those 10 years older. And the way that employers — clients of Monster, of Craig’s List, and lurkers in Facebook — find and evaluate and train them.

And digital citizens, one hopes, might be different too — more engaged in civic life than a famously apathetic generation older. Yochai Benkler has a forthcoming book, The Wealth of Networks, that states quite beautifully the possibilities and the challenges laden in this aspiration.

More relevant to what I have to say tomorrow morning: what does the Cyber Age mean for international law? In part, it means understanding Digital Natives and thinking through challenges for the law — the sorts of challenges taken up by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in their new book, Who Controls the Internet?, and those digging into the internet governance debate. It’s plainly of relevance to those who care about intellectual property law in a Cyber Age, just as Terry Fisher starts out Promises to Keep with a description of one of his twenty-something daughters’ media consumption habits. It’s also critical that those who want to teach international law see the connections between digital natives across cultures and the complex world that they’re maturing into, and will come to lead.

2 thoughts on “Digital Natives, take 2

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