The tools of cultural production are in the hands of teens
January 1st, 2007

Every year, John Brockman asks a question of a widespread community of thinkers and publishes it on Edge.org. I reproduce here my answer to this year’s question — “What are you optimistic about?” — in its entirety:

The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds. This does not guarantee that they will do the hard work of democratic self-governance: the tools that enable the free circulation of information and communication of opinion are necessary but not sufficient for the formation of public opinion. Ask yourself this question: Which kind of population seems more likely to become actively engaged in civic affairs — a population of passive consumers, sitting slackjawed in their darkened rooms, soaking in mass-manufactured culture that is broadcast by a few to an audience of many, or a world of creators who might be misinformed or ill-intentioned, but in any case are actively engaged in producing as well as consuming cultural products? Recent polls indicate that a majority of today’s youth — the “digital natives” for whom laptops and wireless Internet connections are part of the environment, like electricity and running water — have created as well as consumed online content. I think this bodes well for the possibility that they will take the repair of the world into their own hands, instead of turning away from civic issues, or turning to nihilistic destruction.

The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire — unprompted by adults — to learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation, young people are creating and mobilizing politically active publics online when circumstances arouse them to action. 25,000 Los Angeles high school students used MySpace to organize a walk-out from classes to join street demonstrations protesting proposed immigration legislation. Other young people have learned how to use the sophisticated graphic rendering engines of video games as tools for creating their own narratives; in France, disaffected youth, the ones whose riots are televised around the world, but whose voices are rarely heard, used this emerging “machinima” medium to create their own version of the events that triggered their anger (The French Democracy ). Not every popular YouTube video is a teenage girl in her room (or a bogus teenage girl in her room); increasingly, do-it-yourself video has been used to capture and broadcast police misconduct or express political opinions. Many of the activists who use Indymedia — ad-hoc alternative media organized around political demonstrations — are young.

My optimism about the potential of the generation of digital natives is neither technological determinism nor naive utopianism. Many-to-many communication enables but does not compel or guarantee widespread civic engagement by populations who never before had a chance to express their public voices. And while the grimmest lesson of the twentieth century is to mistrust absolutist utopians, I perceive the problem to be in the absolutism more than the utopia. Those who argued for the abolition of the age-old practice of human slavery were utopians.


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