Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected

The MacArthur Foundation’s Series on New Media and Learning, published by the MIT Press, includes a book called Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (2008); open access version here. I opened this book first when I was writing a chapter on Innovators, for Born Digital, a book I’m co-writing with Urs Gasser. I had reason to come back to this book again in thinking about the Task Force we’re chairing, called the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, as there’s a chapter that centers on risk and moral panic in the context of Internet safety. (I’ve previously written about the series as a whole and the volumes Youth, Identity, and Digital Media and Civic Life Online.)

As with the other volumes in the series, there’s much in this book that informs and provokes.

The first essay, by editor Tara McPherson, has a title with particular to the lawyer interested in this topic: “A Rule Set for the Future.” It did not disappoint. This first essay serves both as a guide to the book as a whole as well as a description of six rules to lead to a bright future. As McPherson points out, “This volume identifies core issues concerning how young people’s use of digital media may lead to various innovations and unexpected outcomes, including a range of unintended learning experiences and unanticipated social situations. While such outcomes might typically be seen as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ our investigations push beyong simple accounts of digital media and learning as either utopian or dystopian in order to explore specific digital practices with an eye attuned to larger issues of history, policy, and possibility.” (p. 1) She promises that the book will take up a broad range of issues within this frame, including “policy, privacy and IP,” and to do so in a way that will inform a series of core questions, about what’s really new here, the historical background for these changes, the manner in which these changes are occurring, and what recommendations one might make for “policy, curriculum, or infrastructure.” (p. 2)

These issues that McPherson raises are in many ways the same questions we are seeking to answer in Born Digital, to be honest. She puts them nicely here. (And as a side note: the first footnote of McPherson’s opening essay points to the fact that there have already been — at least — three books on roughly the topic that Urs and I are working on: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom — I’m Learning; Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital; Howe and Strauss’ Milliennials Rising.)

The bulk of McPherson’s opening essay is devoted to laying out “six maxims to guide further research and inquiry into the questions motivating this study.” (p. 2) These six maxims, or rules, are wonderful, both on their own and as a guide to the essays that follow. I will not ruin it by citing them all in this blog-post; you should read them for yourself if you are interested enough in this topic to be reading this paragraph of this obscure blog post. I will say that in Rule 4: Broaden Participation, she cites to a number of the prominent cyber-lawyers, including Lessig, Boyle, and co.

In her essay, “Practicing at Home,” Ellen Seiter does the unexpected: she “draw[s] out the similarities between learning to play the piano and learning to use the computer.” (p. 28-9) One such similarity is the barrier to entry of cost. Overall, it’s a worthy exercise. She informs nicely the issue of how to conceive of digital literacy in the curriculum. Her assessment of the digital divide data and literature, with an overlay of concerns about cultural capital and participation, (e.g., pp. 37-8) invoke Henry Jenkins’ fine work on the participation gap as a better way to think about the relevant split. (There’s also a critique of a passage in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks on related grounds. (pp. 41-2) Ultimately, as Seiter admits, hers “is a pessimistic essay,” (p. 49) though one worth engaging with, especially for those of us who are hopelessly optimistic.

Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer take up the safety issue in the third essay, which is why I picked the book back up again now. It is a bit unexpected to see this essay in this volume — it fits less neatly than some of the others do with the rest — but is very helpful, especially when thinking about what we should really be worried about with respect to young people online. Cassell and Cramer lay out the facts about how great the risks are to young women of using the Internet, wonder why the media portrayal of the issue is quite so hyperbolic and misaligned with these facts, and ultimately “argue that the dangers to girls online are not as severe as they have been portrayed, and that the reason for this exaggeration of danger arises from adult fears about girls’ agency (particularly sexual agency) and societal discomfort around girls as power users of technology.” (p. 55) Cassell and Cramer do an especially nice job of placing into historical context the worry around teens online, in light of previous, similar fears that cropped up as earlier communications media became popular.

Christian Sandvig’s piece on “Wireless Play and Unexpected Innovation” offers a nice overview of how unexpected innovation may happen and what the prerequisites are for its occurrence. He locates Eric von Hippel within the literature and Sandvig’s own argument, which, as a von Hippel devotee, I found a helpful anchor for aspects of his argument. (p. 89) The last paragraph is an accurate — possibly scolding, certainly daunting — call to action. “‘Participatory culture,'” Sandvig contends, “will only move beyond the elite if the desire for decentralized control and widespread participation can animate changes in our society’s fundamental structure of opportunity.” (p. 94)

A cluster of essays that drive down further on the literacy and curricular questions follow. Sonia Livingstone offers insights aplenty in her strong essay on Internet Literacy. She stresses “the historical continuities between internet literacy and print literacy,” to great effect. (p. 115) She ends with a challenge nearly as ambitious and daunting (and just as accurate) as Sandvig’s. Paula Hooper has an instructive take on the use of programming in the curriculum. Sarita Yardi writes up a fun take on the “backchannel” in the classroom — “an exciting innovative space for a new learning paradigm.” (p. 160) Henry Lowood dives deep into games and “the expressive potential of machinima.” (p. 191) Robert Heverly reviews the topic of “growing up digital” and its impact on identity, privacy, and security — with many themes invoking the work of danah boyd (such as persistence).

The second-to-last essay, by Robert Samuels, is the most challenging. He argues, off the bat, “that in order to understand the implications of how digital youth are now using new media and technologies in unexpected and innovative ways, we have to rethink many of the cultural oppositions that have shaped the Western tradition since the start of the modern era.” (p. 219) Like the challenges at the end of the Sandvig and Livingstone pieces, Samuels’s argument strikes me as right, and hard work. He also argues “that we have moved into a new cultural period of automodernity.” I admit I did not understand it in full. (p. 219, 228-33) But I suspect that I like the idea of what he sees ahead: “by defending the public realm against the constant threats of privitization, we can open up a new automodern public space.” (p. 238) It sounds like something you need a whole conference on to understand properly, rather than the one-way street of a 20-page essay.

In the final essay, Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explore perspectives on the current state of digital learning. I am glad I made it this far in the book — propelled by the fine essays that preceded it — because they take up some efforts near and dear to our hearts at the Berkman Center, including Prof. Charles Nesson’s Harvard Law School/Harvard Extension School/Second Life class, CyberOne, taught with his daughter and my law school classmate Becca Nesson. (p. 249-51) Anderson and Balsamo end with a spirited manifesto for “Original Synners,” which I intend to think about adopting in my own teaching. (p. 254-7)

Taken together, these essays fit together as a series of detailed examples that string together issues that are not immediately connected in one’s mind. McPherson predicted as much in her opening essay. As she puts it, together, these essays, “encourage us to recognize that innovation as a cultural phenomenon often happens in unexpected places (as does learning) and produces unanticipated outcomes. They remind us to ask who innovation serves and how we might best reap its benefits for broader visions of social equity and justice. And, finally, they underscore that the term ‘innovation’ is value laden and historically complex.” (p. 5) It’s worth making it all the way through; the connections become clear in the full telling of the tales.

7 thoughts on “Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected

  1. As ever – it is a pleasure to here your thoughts on the Future of Childhood. I look forward to reading your book and participating in the Digital Natives Project – as I read your review, Charles Nesson’s rhetorical space came to mind. Who decides the rules in this evolving communication space where children are the natives, and the adults (the traditional rule makers) become its immigrants. I am currently working on this project and hope to complete it by next Summer. I hope that your co-authored book will provide additional inspiration.

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