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digital natives (draft)

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while i was in Berlin i spoke at Deutsche Telekom's Innovation Day. in the exhibitions hall there was a display for an initiative called Palomar5. Palomar5 is group of young people (and it gives me the shivers that I am no longer included in this category) that are interested in innovation and large-scale problem solving using social technology. With the help of DT, Palomar5 put together a "Technology Innovation Camp." The camp brought 30 young-ens under 30 from around the world and placed them into a former beer factory in the heart of industrial Berlin for six weeks. I visited the facility on the recommendation of the folks that had brought me in to speak.

The space was immense. An architect had been hired to loosely partition some of the more cavernous rooms, creating play spaces and work areas. The sleeping quarters consisted of a series of small, free-standing one-bedroom houses that were scattered around the factory floor. it looked like a miniature village. I was told that these cocoons were especially helpful because the participants kept odd hours and would sometimes hibernate in the middle of the day.

An extremely precocious 19 year-old named Max walked me through the labyrinth. The work areas were chaotic - writing on the walls was encouraged, and in one room a series of bean bags faced a home made projection screen where participants had pitched ideas to professionals in a "real" simulation of the reality show "Dragon's Den." Another room was filled with computers and divided up by large white cut-outs in the shape of sails. Max showed me a fort that the participants had built out of bedsheets and chairs. The night before they had been up until 3AM blowing things up in the parking lot. It was all the best things you could wish for in a techno-geek camp.

Max was interested in entrepreneurship. He was building a platform that he hoped would provide a network of resources to first time entrepreneurs - his subgroup of palomar5 participants has set up a site that will be launching soon if you care to follow their progress. As we wandered around Max spoke in a way that complimented the chaos of the space. His ideas were vast, confused, irreverent and terribly exciting. At one point I asked him whether he planned on going to college next year and he said that he wasn't sure. he said he had sat in on a graduate class and felt that he already knew everything that they were saying. He thought that he might just skip college altogether and become an entrepreneur.

My host at Deutsche Telekom had referred to the participants of Palomar5 as "digital natives." It is a terms that is frequently used to describe people that have had access to the fruits of the digital revolution since early childhood. I am not a digital native, I was born on the cusp - and have experienced the bizarre forces of nature that allow teenagers to assemble on a Friday night without the use of a cell phone. "digital natives" is meant to signify that these people are different in some fundamental way. the idea is that access to technology during formative years has messed with the internal wiring, creating metaphors for information and social experiences that someone like me could never understand. My guess is that this is partially true.

But "digital natives" are not always revered in the way that they are at Palomar5. Companies complain that "natives" expect things to be handed to them, that they don't respect authority. Helicopter mothers supposedly show up at interviews with their native children. Words like "spoiled", "entitled" and "arrogant" are thrown around. Even the word "native" has some unintended negative connotations. Groups that are labeled "native" tend to get a raw deal in this world.

And that is how i reacted to Max's attitude toward universities: as a sign of the Spoiled Generation. He said he would rather start a company than go to an university that threw his ideas in wastebasket after a quick review and a grade. I responded that at his age most of his ideas deserved to be thrown in the garbage, and the product of an education is not a specific idea, but rather the whole of the person being educated. it felt harsh when i said it and since then i've been trying to understand what happened during that exchange.

my guess is that Max and I were talking across some sort of chasm. It is a similar chasm that separates republicans from democrats - where differences in an underlying world view makes it impossible to use our shared language to convey an idea . i think that the chasm i experienced at palomar5 involved two very different ideas about power.

digital natives have grown up in a landscape where access to information and influence has been flattened. they have watched media distribution bottlenecks in the form of networks and studios lose influence to youtube and independent production houses. They have watched companies bow down to viral video critiques, and watched political systems get hacked by social networks. this is a generation that doesn't understand restrictions on access to media if those restrictions are inefficient or obviously detrimental to the system as a whole. this is a generation that has been at war with DRM and copyright right from the start. it is a generation awash with free tutorials and download-able source code.

I can understand why the thought of spending four years at a university could raise a native eyebrow. universities are emblematic of a different, much older understanding of power. they are meant to be an oasis of access to knowledge and influence in contrast to a world where access is withheld. they provide libraries full of information, and allow students to rub elbows with professors who don't return emails. but as access to knowledge and influence flattens, universities seem less like oases and more like training camps.

University students are trained to navigate the power dynamics of the outside world. students are expected to conform to the will of idiosyncratic professors as a sign of their flexibility in the face of power. Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information - learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it. and in the most elite universities students are reminded that the bonds that they create with other students will be the basis of an influence grid that will someday replace the current one - something that could be done in any run-of-the-mill social network for quite a bit less money.

as i write this i feel as though it comes across as if i have contempt for these attributes of a college education. maybe i do, but i also consider them to be valid and valuable. i feel like it is a place where we learn that the world is an uneven place and we should hedge our bet by learning to be self reliant. learn to spell just in case the spell-check stops working. learn to use the stacks just in case google goes down for a day or two. learn to appreciate the classics just in case your boss happens to mention one at a cocktail party. learn basic math just in case your accountant is a cheat. learn basic economics in case you want to go into affiliate advertising.

but show me a society that is obsessed with self reliance and i will show you a society in which communities have failed.

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Comments (1)

The Palomar5 camp sounds almost exactly like one of Cory Doctorow's "new work" communities in Made. Eerie...

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