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The digital (native) Arab

Last week, Digital Natives’ principle investigator John Palfrey presented at the Fikr6 in Bahrain.  The conference was not explicitly about digital youth, but so much of the conversation ended up dominated by related themes.

Much of the conversation centered around digital youth and education – incredibly similar to conversations taking place here in the US, and throughout much of the world.  A key question, one that is being pronounced globally:  How can we reform our education system (and get our educators up to speed!) to take into account what youth are doing online, and with digital technologies – and how can the informal learning and creative skills arising from young people’s digital fluency be incorporated into the formal education system?

Mahmood, one of the leading bloggers in the Arab world, and certainly in Bahrain, reflects on the conference, and on how the fluency of youth in the digital world calls for a re-formulation of the educator’s role.  He writes:

 Young people are at the forefront of the technology curve, most of the time way ahead of their own teachers; hence, a serious investment should be applied to the teachers to get them retrained in new technologies not as “rote learning providers” or ones who teach how to use simple computer operations, but be mentors and enthusiastic educators who can explain the new trends and technologies which in turn will allow their charges to easily absorb and apply that information.

Digital Natives in the Arab world certainly have a unique set of issues to tackle within the digital world – from cultural differences in what should be available online, as Berkman Center’s Open Net Initiative investigates, to what to do about the “brain drain” (or what not to do – when considering how global connectivity enables “drained brain(s)” to be present, in many ways, at home), to thinking about the expansions of new industries within the region.  Certainly, youth in the Arab world experience high levels of inequality in terms of access to digital technologies – although Global Voices Bahrain blogger Esra’a blogs that this divide is closing.

Nevertheless, the common, global strains of issues arising from the emergence of the new digital generation – the digital natives that exist worldwide – are definitely present.   Now, how can we best collaborate to come up with globally-informed solutions to local challenges facing countries the world-over?  Education seems like a great place to start.

– Miriam S.

Much Ado About RUCKUS

Buried in the 747pages that make up the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (COAA) is a small clause that holds colleges responsible for curbing digital piracy on their networks. Its passage in the House (it has not yet passed the Senate) prompted discussion, both contentious and cautious over how this act will be enforced. Yet what interests me, is this phrase, which asks universities to

develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.

Think about it. There are already a cornucopia of digital alternatives to illegal downloading: iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, amazonmp3,, and many many more. Despite these options, illegal downloading continues to be the way almost all college students obtain their music, and most of them don’t think twice about it.

I was speaking with a friend at Cornell last night, and it seems her university has already implemented a program like that described in COAA. Cornell, along with nearly 200 other universities such as Princeton and UCLA, currently subscribes to a site called RUCKUS. RUCKUS provides legal downloads of music, movies, and TV shows to their subscribers. According to my friend though, most of her classmates still downloaded illegally because it was so much more convenient. In her words, “no ads, no bullshit, just pure, sweet, free downloads.” Indeed it seems like RUCKUS is not as great as it markets itself: the site is annoying as a MySpace page on steroids, and the selection is very limited. You also have to download a special RUCKUS player to listen to the music and pay an extra $20 dollars a month to move files from your computer to an mp3 player. Suddenly piracy sounds a whole lot easier.

My anecdotal evidence is, of course, highly unscientific, but it did get me thinking about whether COAA’s clause is even viable. Any working alternative to illegal downloading must be at least as easy and convenient, if not even more so, than current piracy technology. And for the RIAA and MPAA, who are paranoid about file-sharing, that’s pretty difficult. Attempts to control downloads, such as DRM technology, will only drive college students to the convenience of illegal file-sharing. If the legal option were just as good as the illegal one, though, I don’t see why most college students wouldn’t use it.

Of course, to take a step back, trying to change this problem at the college level may just be too late. Any strategy that strives to be effective in the long-term will get ’em early and get ’em young, before the habits of illegal downloading are even formed. Is there hope for my generation? Alas, we shall see.

-Sarah Z.