OII Day 1

Posted on: July 17, 2007

Digital Natives presented by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser

John Palfrey described the Digital Natives project, which is a study of youth who were born digital – or don’t remember a time before computers and the Internet. Palfrey states that this project presumes that “a global generation of younger people that are born digital fundamentally interact with technology differently than people who are slightly older.” The main difference is that technology and the internet are inherently and naturally part of these people’s everyday lives. In fact, the subjects of the study had a hard time understanding why the researchers were even interested in such mundane activities as their daily internet and technology uses.

Palfrey then went on to mention the following differences between the daily activities of digital natives and us older folk:

  • Digital Identity – creating digital identities through blogs, videos, and graphic representations in the forms of an avatar
  • Multi-Tasking
  • Interaction with digital media – expectation of malleable media
  • Digital Creativity – media production
  • Lightweight collaboration – multiple users, distributed work groups
  • New Contexts, New Meanings

Some research questions that these studies are trying to illuminate include:

  • How do we understand digital natives in an empirical sense?
  • What policies do we need to create for this new generation?
  • What does it mean to have a an environment that is much more interactive (Web 2.0) then the first set?
  • What does this mean for digital identity?
  • What does this mean for education and how should education be reformed?

Finally, the study attempts to address some threats such as security, privacy, intellectual property, credibility, and information overload. As well as present areas for opportunities such as the acquisition of media literacy skills, expression/identity, empowering creators, information sharing, maintaining connections, and semiotic democracy.

The Future of the Net presented by Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain gave an excellent presentation that highlighted the main points in his “Saving the Internet” paper which was published in the Harvard Business Review. The paper and the talk basically touched upon the point of “generativity”. According to Zittrain, generativity as provided by our current PCs was the impetus for the huge technological explosion that we have seen over the past few decades. At the basic level, generativity means that a system enables the end user control over the system in the sense of being able to directly interact with it, as well as extend it in any way they choose, without having to go through gatekeepers. Zittrain outlines a framework for generativity that contains four elements:

  1. Leverage – generative systems make difficult jobs easier
  2. Adaptability – breadth of system uses and ease with which it can be modified
  3. Ease of Mastery – how easy it is for broad audiences to adapt and adopt the technology
  4. Accessibility – the ease with which tools, technology, and information can be obtained that are necessary to achieve mastery

Therefore, a system that contains all four elements is the considered to be the most generative.

The best analogy provided in Zittrain’s paper of generativity is legos versus a doll house. Legos are small blocks that can be easily modified to create any number of objects, and are certainly easy enough for kids to master. A doll house on the other hand only provides room for the child’s imagination, but does not actually allow the child to physically modify the structure, and is therefore less generative than legos.

Unfortunately, generativity is not always good because it leaves room for malicious behavior such as spam and security threats. Because people can execute code on their machines, the machines become vulnerable to malicious software. One of the “solutions” (also for economic reasons) to this vulnerability has been the creation of what Zittrain calls “tethered devices” . Devices such as iPods and Tivos are tethered because the user does not ultimately have the control over the device. Since the service and the product are becoming more intertwined, the companies are actually controlling the software of the devices. By pulling a switch, Tivo can “upgrade” the software on every user’s device so that certain programs are no longer recordable. This is often done without the user’s consent. Sure, the user is “safe” from malicious software that could break the Tivo, but at the same time the users rely on Tivo as a gatekeeper to the to the functionality and services available from the device (Analogy: Think CompuServe as the gatekeeper of the Internet).

Therefore, there is ever increasing lockdown of generativity by the most popular devices that we consume. Zittrain is mainly attempting to start a rhetoric around tethered devices as he (and myself included) does not want a locked down future where companies decide what we get to see, listen to, and the features we are allowed to utilize on the devices that we purchase. Not only does it stifle creativity, but also freedom.

This talk truly made me think of the iPhone, which locks down generativity on multiple levels. Not only are you restricted to the applications preloaded on the iPhone, but you are also locked down to a specific service provider – AT&T. Thus, if a consumer wishes to purchase the iPhone, they are required to subscribe to the AT&T wireless network, without even the option to go with Sprint or Verizon. By purchasing the iPhone, people are in a way condoning this kind of behavior. Therefore, we should all think twice before we buy the latest gadget, and the levels on which we are accepting being tethered.

Finally, last night as I was digesting the days events, I had a thought about Facebook. Has Facebook become more generative because it has opened up its API and is allowing third party applications? Something to think about.

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Alla Zollers

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