Born Analog

I dislike the term “digital native.”

I mean no offense to Marc Prensky, who popularized it (along with its counterpart, “digital immigrant”), but the term is laden with colonial baggage, though as a humanities person I’m perhaps hypersensitive to that sort of thing.  More important, the term also misses an important point. Today’s technologically savvy young people were born analog.

Apple’s iPod completely changed the music industry; the iPhone all but eliminated a whole class of handheld computers, and Amazon’s Kindle seems likely to have a similar effect on the publishing industry. While no single vendor has marketed a product that comes close to the full pontential memex, the emerging semantic web — which attempts to learn from the RSS feeds, social bookmarking rankings, and reputation management tools — is a more recent technological effort to magnify our collective cognitive powers. Anyone who uses the web on a regular basis should thank the creators of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and hypertext in general, because they were all far more interested in making it easy for information to spread, than they were in figuring out how to lock it down and charge a toll for every bit.

Internet service providers are making a steady income by charging to deliver the content that The Washington Post and CNN are putting online for free.  (I’m stunned that people will gladly pay 20 cents to send a text message, and another 20 cents to read a reply, but they won’t pay anything at all to read a whole newspaper.)

In its early years, Google courted the goodwill of the online community with its “Don’t Be Evil” policy.

In recent years, Google’s reach has expanded into e-mail, street-level photo-enhanced maps, a mobile phone system, and its purchase of Blogger, YouTube, and the online advertising service DoubleClick. Those who are exceptionally trusting, or have nothing at all to hide, can opt to permit Google to archive their web surfing history and even the entire contents of their hard drives.

The company is now aggressively courting universities with a free suite of e-mail, calendar, and document tools, pushing user content off of university servers and into a Google-controlled cloud. In 2008, the end user license agreement (EULA) for Google’s web browser required users to grant Google a “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and nonexclusive license” to archive, remix, and distribute any and all content that users create or transmit using the software.

In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky writes, “To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others… freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly” (171).

To Google’s credit, the company responded promptly and sensibly to the public outcry. I’m not ready to don a tinfoil hat yet, but the presence of such language in a shipped product raises serious questions.

Vannevar Bush’s hypothetical memex was an analog vision of how
technology might help academics cope with the accelerating pace of
scholarly publication. He imagined what we might call a photocopier on
steroids, manipulating documents at the page level, but also capable of
storing annotations and trading them with other researchers, thereby
permitting users to collaborate in a kind of proto sneakernet cloud.

After investing a great deal of time and effort in learning a new
way of relating to the world, kids learn to be digital. “This Little
PIggy” helps familiarize babies with their own digits, and ABC-123
further atomizes the world, helping kids move from putting things into their
mouths in order to learn about the world, to using language in order
formulate questions, and abstracting knowledge from the answers. (I
think my daughter was four before she realized that nobody else’s
fourth little piggy “wrote on her weblog.”)