Discussing ‘Born Digital’ with European Students

(Cross posted from Dr. Gasser’s blog)

John Palfrey and I are getting tremendously helpful feedback on the draft v.0.9 of our forthcoming book Born Digital (Basic Books, German translation with Hanser) from a number of great students at Harvard and St. Gallen Law School, respectively. Last week, John and I had an inspiring conversation about the current draft with our first readers on this side of the Atlantic: a small, but great and diverse group of law students here at www.unisg.ch. The students, coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Singapore, and the U.S., were kind enough to share their feedback with us based on reaction papers they’ve drafted in response to assigned book chapters.

Today, the second session took place. John and I are currently revisiting the final chapter of the book. The “final” chapter, of course, is by no means “final” – even not if it once becomes a chapter of the printed book. What we’re trying to do is simply to synthesize some of the things we’ve said so far, and to look ahead once again and ask ourselves how the digital world will look like for our kids given the things we know – and we don’t know – about their digital lives. In this spirit, the last chapter of the book in particular is an open invitation to join the discussion about the promises and challenges of the Internet for a population that is born digital. Against this backdrop, we prepared three discussion questions for today’s session here in St. Gallen.

First, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for Digital Natives when it comes to digital technologies? Second, what are you most concerned about when thinking about the future of the Internet? Third, what approach – generically speaking – seems best suited to address the challenges you’ve identified?

Here are the students’ thoughts in brief:

Greatest opportunities:

  • Democratizing effect of the net: DNs can build their own businesses without huge upfront investments (Rene, Switzerland)
  • ICT enables networking among people across boundaries (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Encourages communication among DNs (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • Increased availability of all kind of information, allows fast development and sharing ideas among DNs (Jonas, Germany)
  • Availability of information, DN can go online and find everything they’re looking for; this shapes, e.g., the way DNs do research; as a result, world becomes a smaller place, more common denominators in terms of shared knowledge and culture (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Efficiency gains in all areas, including speed of access, spread of ideas, … (Eugene, Singapore)

Greatest challenges, long-term:

  • Problem of losing one’s identity – losing cultural identity in the sea of diversity (Eugene, Singapore)
  • Dependency on technology and helplessness when not having the technology available; DNs are becoming dependent on technology and lose ability to differentiate b/w reality and virtuality; other key challenge: bullying (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Who will get access to the digital world – only the wealthy kids in the West or others, too? Digital divide as a key problem (Jonas, Germany)
  • Addiction: DNs are always online and depend so much on Internet that it may lead to addictive behavior (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • DNs can’t distinguish between offline and online world, they can’t keep, e.g. online and offline identities separate (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Notion of friendship changes; DNs might forget about their friends in the immediate neighborhood and focus solely on the virtual (Rene, Switzerland)

Most promising approaches:

  • Teach digital natives how to use social networks and communicate with each other; law, in general, is not a good mode of regulation in cyberspace (Rene, Switzerland)
  • Technology may often provide a solution in response to a technologically-created problem like, e.g., privacy intrusion (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Don’t regulate too much, otherwise people won’t feel responsible anymore; education is key, help people to understand that it’s their own responsibility (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • The laws that are currently in place suffice (except in special circumstances); learning is key, but who shall be the teacher (since today’s teachers are not DNs)? (Jonas, Germany)
  • Generic legal rules are often not the right tool, problems change too fast; instead, kids need general understanding of how to handle technology; goal could be to strengthen their personality in the offline world so that they can transfer their confidence, but also skills to the online world (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Technology will most likely help DNs to solve many of the problems we face today; education is the basis, but focus needs to be on the question how to put education from theory into practice (Eugene, Singapore)

As always, we were running short in time, but hopefully we can continue our discussion online. Please join us, and check out our project wiki (new design, many thanks to Sarah!), our new DN blog, or for instance our Facebook group. John, our terrific team, and I are much looking forward to continuing the debate!

-Urs G.

CNN YouTube Debates

Tonight, CNN and YouTube hosted the republican complement to the successful democratic debate they hosted last June. The premise is the same: allow anyone to submit a question on YouTube, and then pose selected ones to candidates. Many would agree that this is a good step towards a participatory democracy (see John Palfrey’s post about it here), but some still want more. The New York Times has a series of Op Eds about what a “real, new-media debate would look like.” The responses range from cynical to creative, with some well planned enough to see possible implementation. Here I’d like to discuss some of the most thought provoking.

Kevin Kelly, an editor at large for Wired magazine, notes that “the truth becomes something you assemble with the help of friends” and on a continuous basis. He suggests having the lives of candidates constantly documented so citizen journalists can fact check and note not only the “oops” moments but also the “aha” ones.

Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, the co-founders of TechPresident.com, offer a simple and effective way to better cull the videos submitted by users: let other users vote. I agree that, in theory, this would be more representative of the population, but it allows for viral videos to overtake other ones that may be more important to ask. But who currently decides what is most important to ask? Right now, the answer is still a panel of journalists that review the submissions and try to cover the most salient issues. The panel selects videos in light of viewing all the rest, whereas a voting public likely will not.

Matt Bai, contributing editor for the New York Times magazine, proposes that the candidates have laptops behind the lecterns and type comments that would be displayed on an overhead monitor while the other candidate answers a question. In his full Op Ed piece he provides some comical examples of its use.

Obviously, the suggestions in the collection of Op Eds were designed as fantasy; an imaginative view of what a super cutting edge debate would be. Who knows how many of the ideas will be implemented, in one way or another, in the future as more DNs become politically active and engaged in elections.

What are your ideas for making the debates truly participatory?

-Tony P.