The Public Domain and Digital Natives

Two weeks ago I visited the wonderful city of Turin to attend the International Conference University and Cyberspace. Reshaping Knowledge Institutions for the Networked Age, the closing conference of The COMMUNIA Thematic Network. As they state on their website, COMMUNIA aims at becoming a European point of reference for theoretical analysis and strategic policy discussion of existing and emerging issues concerning the public domain in the digital environment. The conference was organized by the NEXA center for Internet & Society at the Turin Politecnico and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard university.

The conference lasted three days and was an amazing mix of very knowledgeable and renowned speakers, fascinating panel discussions and very productive break-out sessions. It was organized according to a grid through which the different ‘horizontal tracks’ (“Digital Natives”, “Information Infrastructure”, and “Physical/Spatial Infrastructure”) were traversed by ‘vertical tracks’ (“the Civic Role of Universities” (Universities as Civic Actors or Institutions), “Educating Students” (Universities as Platforms for Learning), and Research (Universities as Knowledge Creators). You can find more information about the conference structure here. I will discuss only two of the, to my opinion, highlights of the conference. All keynotes, high order bits, track sessions, plenaries and accompanying documentation can be found online here.

The conference kicked-off with an interview with Charles Nesson, founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, conducted by NEXA’s Juan Carlos de Martin. They shortly discussed the goals of the COMMUNIA project, starting in 2006 with 36 organizations, but then quickly went on to focus on the public domain. What constitutes the public domain? As Nesson explains, the legal definition is that it consists of works for which the legal protection has expired. More practically, the public domain consists of everything you can access for free without the risk of being sued. The public domain is the open/common wealth of all the citizens of the net. As Nesson states, “the public domain is what you can do”. It empowers the individual. It gives them the opportunity not only to consume but more importantly, also to create, to contribute to the public domain. So the public domain is just as much about access as it is about creativity.

Nesson feels there is a lack of emphasis on the fact that you can do things with the public domain, the public domain is not only about consuming. The government for instance focuses mostly on the negative aspects, on the “problem of the internet” on the bad things you can do with the internet. Big business is only interested in tracking transactions on the net and making sure these transactions are being paid for. Neither of these major constituencies are institutionally committed to promoting freedom on the Internet. Where is the institution that does this? According to Nesson this is (or should be) the university. Nesson says it is time for the university to examine its own interests and to become an institutional foundation for the promotion and protection of freedom on the net. If you look at the digital natives and the empowerment, the freedom they experience online: this does not only have a political and cultural value but also an economical value as it enhances peoples capability to explore and to create new things. Nesson compares the public domain to our natural environment and the environmental movement: they both face the same legal kind of issues. Cyberspace can be seen as an environment, it is a space and how it is build up is up to us. The public domain is something we (as individuals) create and contribute to. Universities as cultural centers should take care of this environment where they articulate, preserve and shape the public domain. Universities should tend the public domain and keep it alive. That is the role of universities in cyberspace.

What are the main challenges and opportunities for universities on the Internet? One of the main challenges according to Nesson is that people don’t see universities as a public institution but as something separate from the public. The university sees itself as a business creating property to be charged for. But at the same time universities are at a transition point where the traditional default of universities has been closed and the internet default is focused on openness. The challenge of the university is to adjust and to survive in this new environment. The opportunities lie in the strength of the network, in the evolution of collective strength. We are learning to use this environment to produce public wealth. And this should be the focal point of university administrators: how to use this environment to create knowledge in new ways and how to mix these two environments in a way that leads to progress.

In this respect the university has three missions:

  • releasing knowledge/products
  • educating students
  • civic citizenship

As Nesson concludes, the last role of the university is essential, especially in cases where in the political domain the infrastructure of the virtual space is being challenged.

John Palfrey, also from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, talked about how we could redesign the university for a networked age and how we can do this with respect to the learning habits of young people, of digital natives. He wonders what the architecture of the university would look like if we where to design it form the ground up today? What would a university look like in a digital plus environment, which is not only a digital but a hybrid environment? What do we know about these young people that will help us with this design work?

Palfrey focuses on the concept of digital natives and on the conversation on whether kids these days are different. In the most pure form of the argument, that of the digital natives (a term coined by Marc Prensky) they are fundamentally different. This strong form has been challenged however by the dominant academic view of the moment. The dominant research view is that there is a deep skepticism towards the idea of digital natives. The term is disliked as it incorporates an idea of essentialism. Kids today are no different from the kids that came before, they learn exactly the same way but in a new environment. By using this term we are making kids into something they are not.

Palfrey and his co-author Urs Gasser decided to embrace the term anyway for their book Born digital. Understanding the first generation of digital natives, because the term has true cultural resonance. However, they decided to reclaim it: yes it is a phenomenon but it is not everyone, digital natives are not a generation but a population. There are some characteristics this population shares: they are born after 1980. they have access to technology and they have the skills to use them.

And this is where the problems arise. Not everyone born after 1980 is a digital native. There is still a digital divide. Access to technology (especially to mobile technology) is not standard for all young people. Furthermore, a lot of people do not have the skills to participate, there is thus a participation gap. They do have access but they don’t have the ability to use the technology in an effective and innovative way. It is also not just kids who use technology in a new way, a lot of digital settlers are using technology very innovatively too.

Palfrey discusses the outcomes of his research with Urs Gasser on digital natives and names a few attributes of this population. An important aspect is the convergence of environments. How do digital natives project themselves in the world, how do they create identity? It is important to understand that the digital identity or the online and offline identity are a mash: digital natives do not see these as different identities, they just see it as life. This is for instance very important when we think about creating knowledge environments like the library. The library is not a physical place with a virtual component, it is both at the same time: it is a convergence of environments. The creation of identity for digital natives is in the characters, the avatars they create, it is in their game identity.

Secondly, digital natives are doing multiple things at once. Most of the times there is another conversation going on. It is not a distraction however, it is interaction. Digital natives are multi-taskers This is not a good or a bad thing, the important question Palfrey states is how do we react to this as universities, do we need to embrace this?

Thirdly, digital natives relate in a specific way to media: in their relationship to media they expect all media to be digital. There is however one exception: the book. They still want the printed book, they do not want e-books. They use the same arguments non-digital natives use: bed, booth, beach. In all these cases the book is the best or preferred format.

According to Palfrey the idea of young people and kids being digital creators instead of consumer is overrated. For most of the kids this is not the case. They do not have the ability to tinker with the code. The real creators are only a small percentage kids are just as creative as they were before.

Digital natives have a different relationship to hierarchy and authority. in environment were hierarchies are broken down, the university is at risk. Some of these treats is the credibility of information and authority of sources. Another treat is the overload of information in the current environment. This is another challenge. Finally are challenges associated with intellectual copyright. Rules are very complex for re-using materials for instance in a library setting.

How should we respond to this challenge this challenge associated with how young people are learning. Within an environment in which universities increasingly have less money. How do we prioritize and focus. We should come back to the essential functions of the university (scholarship, teaching, learning, civic action and citizenship) and explore how the cyber strategy can help us do these things better. We need to focus on how to much information might drive students crazy. We may need to re-introduce contemplative spaces to encourage long-form thinking and contemplation.

As Palfrey concludes, today we have created a very complex environment for students as we have not yet tackled this notion of converging the virtual and physical environment. We haven’t done the design work of what a university would look like in a hybrid learning environment. We need to connect to the new learning habits and begin this work of architecting a hybrid university in a digital plus era.

Palfrey and Gasser’s book is part of a larger project on digital natives. As part of this project interns made remixes of the different chapters in the book. This led amongst others to this fascinating remix of the chapter on digital dossiers by a 17th year old intern.



I gave a short presentation during the panel on ‘Research’ (Universities as Knowledge Creators). You can see me perform here.


2 comments on “The Public Domain and Digital Natives

  1. Pingback: Public Domain and “Digital Natives” «

  2. Pingback: Conference Report: “The Public Domain and Digital Natives” :

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