Digitally Rewired: Coming of Age in a Network Society

Philip Zimbardo thinks my brain has been “digitally rewired” by video games, computers, cell phones, and the Internet. If you grew up with digital technology, he thinks that yours has, too. He thinks that we think differently—nonlinearly—and so we get bored in school. This poses a challenge to learning because analogue teaching methods are still being used in the classroom. Sir Ken Robinson makes a similar argument in his RSA video that discusses why schools kill creativity and how the arts should be embraced in learning environments. He also claims that divergent thinking is stifled because technology makes students more prone to webs of interaction that stimulate many interests at once. He resolves that a formal education should include various forms of play, which tap into our natural capacity for understanding, retaining, and refiguring information.

I wonder if there’s any purchase to these concepts. It makes me think back on my childhood… …before there was Facebook, Web 2.0, and Android…

…When I was a kid, I was a Boy Scout. My grandfather was the troop leader, my mom chaired regular meetings, and my stepdad frequently drove me to the local church where I’d spend a few hours a week learning knots, reciting motto’s, and telling fart jokes. Twice a year, we’d have fundraisers, squaring off in competition, each of us pining to be top-sellers and have a choice of prizes that our parents would never buy us. We’d sell popcorn or we’d sell flowers.

I excelled at flower sales, but it wasn’t because I knew anything about horticulture. The truth was simpler: my family worked hard to ensure that the Scout troop stayed financially stable and they’d be dammed if their kid didn’t win the top prize. Needless to say, I had a social network that, when activated, could rival the Gotti family in efficiency.

It’s amazing what parents will do in the name of their kids.

Each year, I won top seller. Each year, I sold maybe $50 dollars worth of flowers. Each year, “I” managed to rake in a few thousand in sales.

I was an anomaly in the Boy Scout flower-business world, often endng up the regional top-seller. Other kids dreaded me and other parents were always suspicious that my scheme was a sham. I was heavily dissuaded from disclosing this information at the time, but my entire extended family (and friends) hustled flowers like street-grade powder. It was never a solo operation. Perennial blues and seasonal reds lined edges of every house on my street; no cousin was too distant to receive a phone call; white pages of the family phonebook were riddled with highlighting for quick reference. Harnessing the power of my familial network, I was a philanthropic force to be reckoned with. Eventually, people started calling us, asking when the sale would begin. They needed their fix.

To the chagrin of my fellow Scouts, my family’s hard work would always end in uproarious applause and admiration. I was the sole benefactor, the shining, smiling, buttery face of a sinister flower-sales operation. Each year, I carried my new bike, year’s supply of bubble gum, or $500 savings-bond back to my chair at the annual banquet feeling like I knew a secret the other kids didn’t. I knew how to get my family to work for me…

Thinking back on my childhood, it seems that Zimbardo and Robinson are right; I was raised to think differently. I was wired in a unique way.

But that wiring had very little to do with technology. It had more to do with the patterns of organization I was exposed to. I was embedded in efficient, beneficial, and rewarding peer-production networks from the start. In a social arena where the stakes were raised and motivations ran high, figuring out how to crowd source was a necessary part of my youth experience. My parents insisted that I participate in nearly all of the organizations in my local community. If I was rewired by anything as a youth, it was by my parents’ willful style of parenting, not the computer games that connected my to the slow and arduous world wide web of the early 90’s.

I do like the idea of digital rewiring, but I think the word digital needs to be redefined so it is not so deterministic. Maybe the meaning of digital isn’t so attached to technology; maybe it actually means social, participatory, networked, dedicated, and modular.

Yochai Benkler (2006) says that “emerging models of information and cultural production, radically decentralized and based on emergent patterns of cooperation and sharing … are beginning to take on an ever-larger role in how we produce meaning” (Chp 2, para. 6). “Emergent” is misleading in this phrase because I’ve been participating in cooperative networks since before I could pronounce the word “Xanga.” The models of production Benkler discusses were in place well before digital reffered to a technological practice.

Could it be that the organizational patterns I learned as a child, before we were all tethered to smartphones, laptops and tablets, made me privy to current patterns of participatory culture, with its convergent qualities and social production values? Maybe the reason I value open-source software, online gaming, Facebook, and music sharing  aren’t because I was “born digital” (Pelfrey & Gasser, 2008) but because the in conditions of my upbringing revolved around modularity and granularity.

Maybe what makes the current age digital isn’t so much that we reformulate texts “by the fingers and thumbs (the digits), clicking and keying and pressing in” (Kirby, 2009, p. 1) buttons, but that knowledge is formed through patterned interactions tied to the economic and political realities of the the past and the present. Maybe my childhood was littered with events, activities, and social functions that prepared me for a network society before network societies were ever a thought.

This would mean that members of an older generation—my parents’ generation—set the stage for the digital age. It would mean that their cultural norms and standards formed some sort of digital prehistory—a precursor to the Hive style of society (Kelly, 1994) we live in today. If this is true, and I think that a good socio-political case can be made that it is, then today’s youth have a sort of digital inheritance sans technology, of which they’ve developed new media technology to help them enact the patterns they were raised with.

There was no definite dawn of the digital age; it isn’t as though the sun came up one day and shed light on a field filled with touch screen computers, IPhonesSpotify, and Mark Zuckerberg. As historian Thomas Kuhn (1962) reminds us, paradigms shift when the current state of affairs reveals “anomalies whose characteristic feature is [a] stubbornness to be assimilated to existing paradigms” (p. 97). In short, it isn’t until we notice that the old way of doing things isn’t working that we recognize our current conditions to be different. This means that the revolutionary nature of the digital age exemplified in peer-production projects like Wikipedia, meritocratic mechanisms of group ranking on sites like The Pirate Bay and Reddit, and crowdsourcing trends that boost blog/news sites like Huffington Post to the top of search engine results are not the real reasons for major shifts in values and culture. In actuality, what’s changed is our perceptions.

Fundamentally, changes in culture and social values made more apparent by new technology are misunderstood to be inherent to the technology itself. But technology has no inherent quality. This sort of perceptual framing (or technological determinism) is a convenient rhetorical strategy used by many to resist participating in the network.

We like to think that we’re living in the midst of a paradigm shift—that those innovative forms of production we attribute to the contemporary Internet have changed everything, including the meaning of power, control, and social structure. It isn’t true. The paradigm shifted a while ago.

If a collective effort was made to spread the idea that things have been networked for a while, maybe we could have a conversation about the ethics of representation, participation, and authority in the digital age before accusations are made about the “inherent dangers” of new media technology. Maybe we’d all take one big step forward and wuite being so afraid to participate. Maybe students would be more literate when it comes to digitality.

Henry Jenkins (2006) thinks that we need to play in order to learn how to live more amicably in the digital age. Both parents and youth can learn how to navigate a network society, together, if they abandon their allegiances to perceptions that frame new media as “new”; if they acknowledge that we have all been digitally rewiring each other for the better part of 30 years, and that participatory culture works better when everyone is on board; if they embrace the network for what it is and understand that they all have a role to play in it.

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PLE's Digitally Rewired: Coming of Age in a Network Society by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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