In “Introducing Identity,” David Buckingham identifies an argument that supports the view of today’s new media technology as “a force of liberation for young people–a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community” (13). But I’m not sure how “autonomous” the younger digital generation can really be. They are definitely empowered to break away from traditional opressors–parents, like the argument suggests, and perhaps also institutional (at least in its traditional forms).
Still, are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media? One of Buckingham’s concerns points to “the undemocratic tendencies of online ‘communities'” (14). In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on. One day about a month ago, women (and girls) on Facebook started putting up colours and patterns on their statuses. Some men even joined in, many without knowing what exactly they were participating in–their favourite colours?, the colour of their current mood?, or what? And when many asked those who participated, the resulting elitism and reluctance to reveal was met either with participants’ own lack of understanding, or a cliquish desire to keep that knowledge from more people. Only after a whole day, or even longer, did many find out that it turned out to be the colour of the bra you are wearing at the time in support of breast cancer awareness. Nevermind the irony esoteric knowledge/practices against the purpose of awareness, what disturbs me more is the antisocial, anti-democratic behaviours that arose from the event. And this is but one example on Facebook, while many others include the so-called “doppelganger” profile picture week, viral gaming like Julianne has noted, etc. And these behaviours are certainly not limited to Facebook. Go to any site that has social interaction–MySpace, Twitter, even markets like Amazon and eBay–and they’re all there.
The counter may be in educational initiatives whose objectives include the individuation of the student, such as with New York City’s “School of One” project, which claims to be “a combination of teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, independent learning, and work with virtual tutors”–that is pretty much the only thing worth noting in the document. (The rest of the online statement, unfortunately, is a sad hodge-podge of bureaucratic and capitalist desperations that are neither here nor there for this discussion.) I’m reminded of a class I recently observed. Some students, as in many classes nowadays, were on their laptops. One in particular had her iMac’s browsers open to the instructor’s iLearn website as the instructor was explaining assignments, going back and forth between that and Facebook, while chatting in an open Skype messaging box, texting on her iPhone with one hand, eating pretzels with the other–I’m not exaggerating. So, if this is the new face, the new identity of our so-called “digital native” student, what are the most effective ways for them to learn? Or, to jump off of what Cynthia L. Selfe says in “Students Who Teach Us,” is it true that we, as educators, “should not only be interested in new media texts but should be using them systematically in their classrooms to teach about new literacies” (44)?
I see this student as not necessarily liberated, but slave to a new system. What I liken this false freedom to is the runaway delinquent that we are prone to romanticise. Huck may escape the constraints of family and society, but he’s going to run into unsavoury elements like the Duke and the Dauphin who take advantage of his immaturity and inexperience. But at least Huck has Jim to look after him and take care of him when the needs arise. The danger, in our case, is that Huck knows more about the interwebs than Jim, and so Jim is left virtually powerless, doing nothing but embarassing Huck with his attempts to be cool online like one of the kids.
So the more pertinent question now, then isn’t “Does Jim have the responsibility to learn more about Huck’s digital world?,” but “Does he even have the ability to?”