How revolutionary is the English digital native?

Pop PopeWhere’s the revolution? We’re back in England and are looking for signs of the sea change that was heralded by Marc Prensky (and others) when they claimed (back in 2001) to see a new generation connected to all things digital – a generation that was fundamentally different from its predecessors. After more than a decade in a culture that sells itself as a youth culture, with a youth that is composed almost entirely of digital natives, surely we will be able to see something that looks and feels revolutionary – some signs of a new digitally enhanced liberty, because the really radical feature of the digital native was supposed to be their intolerance of the old hierarchies – their refusal to sit quietly and let the teacher dictate. From the kindergarten to college Prensky found evidence of a new refusal of the old despotisms. Prensky’s description of the new revolutionary tide rises to a crescendo with this assessment of the mood of college students:

More and more, they won’t take it. “I went to a highly ranked college where all the professors came from MIT,” says a former student. “But all they did was read from their textbooks. I quit.”

The question now is: Can we find signs of this revolutionary upheaval in England 11 years on? Since Prensky can characterise the mood of an entire student body by reference to one student who quit, we feel equally at liberty in disregarding old-fashioned notions of statistical significance. We looked at a sample of three digital natives.

What we noticed was that although they were using a wide variety of touch-screen devices for most of the day, the digital gadgets paled into insignificance when X-Factor was being broadcast on the wide-screen TV. X-Factor could not be missed, no matter what was happening online. At that point, gathered around the television, all the previous hours of surfing the web and tweeting and facebooking seemed to be merely killing time compared to the unmissable vicarious emotional rollercoaster of X-Factor, with each contestant in turn hurtling from elated anticipation to tears to elation and then back to tears again (and out of a thousand hopefuls only one escapes the ultimate disappointment).

Now, there is nothing revolutionary about X-Factor. In effect, it is a parade of televisual willing slaves. The contestants appear to be liberated – living life to the full, turning their dream into reality and experiencing the highest peaks of emotional intensity – but the apparent liberty is subordinated to the worst heteronomy – all their energies are directed towards winning the approval of the judges – judges who have all the power but no real authority, since they are either a handful of celebrities or the public at large, where it is only numbers that matter. I wonder whether anyone seeking the approval of the Pope ever waited in the antechamber with such tremendously agitated anticipation, or went away in such floods of tears when it was denied. Odd, because at least the Pope could claim to be God’s representative on Earth, but what can Simon Cowell or Gary Barlow claim that could justify a pop Popery that exceeds anything the Catholic church was capable of?

After sitting through an episode of X-Factor with some very English digital natives, I felt I had seen enough. The conclusion is clear: Regardless of the challenges posed for teachers by twitchy digital natives, the iGeneration has no real sense of a new autonomy, and without a generalised sense of a new autonomy, talk of revolution is vacuous – which raises a question: Might the new tech with all its fetishized bling and all the hype surrounding it not be sapping the sense of autonomy rather than enhancing it? In its current form, might it not be more a force of reaction, rather than revolution?

written by Torn Halves on September 30, 2012 in digital revolution with one Comment