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The Way We Remember Now

Are Digital Natives forgetting how to remember? This was Anne Balsamo’s parting suggestion at the Berkman luncheon last Tuesday, and it chilled the gathering instantly. Up to that point, Balsamo’s talk had been largely upbeat, a primer on the power of what she calls the “technological imagination” — the “quality of mind the enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible, and to evaluate the consequences of such creation from multiple perspectives” (as she explains in her essay “Taking Culture Seriously”). Balsamo highlighted many positive aspects of the Digital Age, including the development of new kinds of literacy and the transformative influence of technology on education and art. Nevertheless, her final thought reminded us that with the great gains of digital technology come inalterable change and inevitable loss.

What Balsamo intimated was this: Digital Natives are unconcerned with remembering events and data because they can usually find the information they need online. My own experience indicates this is true. Take, for example, the act of remembering the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In a pre-internet age, a young person might have felt compelled to memorize its approximate date, the circumstances that led to its collapse, and, just maybe, the fact that someone named Edward Gibbon wrote a giant book about it. A Digital Native, on the other hand, can say, “I’ll look it up later on Wikipedia,” and leave it at that. This nonchalance towards remembering facts applies to experiences as well. For Digital Natives, a party, rock concert, or political rally is no longer a prized moment shared with a select few, no longer an ephemeral event that will live on only if attendees choose to remember it. Before a concert has even begun, before tickets are even available, a Digital Native can network with other fans, buy merchandise at the band’s website, or download tracks that will be played live on stage. If a Digital Native can’t make it to a political rally, he or she need only follow the event’s twitter feed. And if the Digital Native can’t remember what, exactly, he or she did last night, no matter – it’s all been recorded in a friend’s Facebook photo album for the entire school to see. In Balsamo’s view, the Internet has become a prosthetic memory; as Digital Natives rely on it, their own capacity for recall only grows weaker.

These days, it seems the cry of memory has never been louder. We are told to “never forget” 9/11, urged, in the face of Darfur, to remember the Holocaust. Amidst all this remembering, the Internet breeds crisis. On the one hand, anything we do online — be it traveling from page to page or uploading content — is logged. Our information persists whether we want it to or not, preserved by the collective digital memory of the web. On the other hand, as Balsamo puts it, “Every day, the web forgets more than it remembers.” The face of the Internet can change in an instant: a headline altered to reflect breaking news, a picture photo-shopped to exclude political dissidents. While proof of all these changes should be lurking in a cache somewhere, the sheer volume of information online can prevent the average person from finding it. Web users, too, exercise willful forgetfulness. As blogosphere culture demonstrates, new is in. Old news is no news.

All the same, this “memory crisis” may not be so new. Older generations have also experienced great and terrible things to remember – The Revolution, the Great War, Vietnam. Always, it seems someone is urging us to remember something. This is not, moreover, the first time technology has changed the nature of memory itself. With the advent of writing came the fear that people would lose the ability to recite oral histories; the art form would disappear, and history would be forgotten. Although many did lose that bardic skill, it was a small price to pay for the birth of a new art form, a new way to log history, and a new way to spread knowledge.

So, how do we deal with the changing state of memory today? As when writing became widespread, we will have to recalibrate our notions of what it means to remember. We need to exercise the “technological imagination” Balsamo describes, to “think” with our technology and examine how we can harness it in service of, and not counter to, memory. Memory in a Digital Age is collaborative. Whereas one person could easily forget the details of an event, a community of users can now swap pictures and stories to let the moment endure. As a result, facts and experiences take on their own life, presences greater than any one person could render. At the same time, the web’s shifting nature demonstrates that experiences – and our memories of them – are as tenuous as ever, that they are something to be cherished. Perhaps the Internet can actually teach us reverence for memory. If that is the lesson to be learned, it is no wonder internet-savvy thinkers like Balsamo are so concerned with remembering to remember.

Nikki Leon

(Special thanks to Jacob Kramer-Duffield for his thoughts on the impact of writing.)

MySpace Photo Leak

Until recently, MySpace had a serious security flaw that allowed photos of users whose profiles were set to private to be viewed by anyone. Two weeks ago, user called DMaul uploaded a 17 GB file of more than 500,000 private Myspace photos available for download on torrent sites. The file was the 9th most downloaded file on torrent sites that week.

According to Wired, the file quickly lost popularity after people realized it was a random collection of typical photos — weddings, babies, birthday parties. DMaul has come forward to explain his actions, saying “I think the greatest motivator was simply to prove that it could be done. It is ridiculous to think that there is privacy on public websites. These types of situations are more education than anything.” So DMaul’s actions indeed had no malicious intent, and they should by taken for their educational value.

The real kicker is that the security flaw was known on various message boards for months before it was fixed. What’s even more disconcerting is how this flaw was exploited. A thread on the discussion forum back in October consisted of a self-described “pedo army” sharing the private galleries of 15 and 16-year-old girls. There have even been YouTube videos and commercial websites touting this flaw. It was only after Wired broke the story that MySpace finally fixed the hole. I’m also surprised that despite a fair amount of coverage in the blogosphere, the story hasn’t made it into the mainstream news either.

MySpace has so far refused to comment on the situation, so it’s hard to say whether MySpace was unaware of the situation or was aware and didn’t act on it. Either way, the blame should lie with MySpace for flouting the privacy of its users for so long. While most teens are perfectly aware of the dangers of leaving their profiles open, there is the expectation that profiles set to private will indeed be private. Is this expectation rational in today’s world? Surely the millions of people who do their banking or shopping online would think so. Social networking sites should be taking the privacy of its users more seriously, especially when minors are concerned. It has been suggested that sites like MySpace need to create special task forces that will prowl the Internet looking for security flaws as they arise. When users have done their part to protect their privacy, MySpace should do its part too.

Text Messaging and Public Graffiti

There was a great article in the Boston Globe yesterday about two Boston area companies, Aerva Inc. and LocaModa Inc., that are pioneering so-called “public graffiti spaces.” In essence, they are connected displays that show content submitted via text messages. It is also broadcast online so that others can tune in to a given location and even submit content themselves. As “out-of-home” displays become more popular, I’d like to discuss the current and future applications of this idea, as well as the implications it holds for digital identity and privacy.

LocaModa Inc., which provides a service called Wiffiti (short for wireless graffiti) views interactive out-of-home displays as the answer to consumers’ “insatiable desire for connectedness” and the shift from a “’lean back’ TV experience to a more active ‘lean forward’” one. Traditional narrowcast displays, like those found in Wal-Mart or other retail stores, have been vehicles for open loop advertisements that do not respond to users or incorporate user-generated content. Wiffiti works by having a display in a public place, like a café or club, to which users can send text messages that will be immediately displayed on screen. A particular establishment can extend the effectiveness of the device by prompting the audience to, say, submit music requests, vote on their favorite bartender, or answer trivia questions. The model for this is shown below:

Public Texting

Marketers love this idea and view it as the new way to connect with potential customers. The Economist reports that Proctor & Gamble ran a promotion inviting women to text “secrets” to giant screen in Times Square that would also be broadcast on the website. (A representative message confessed, “I cut my sister’s hair when she was younger and told my parents that she did it herself.”) Executives at the company praised the promotion for dramatically increasing brand awareness.

Public text messaging appeals not only to the need for connectedness that some of us have, but also to marketers and the owners of a venue because of the inherent data collection ability. A user’s cell phone number acts as a unique identifier (like a cookie on a website) that can track the screens to which someone submits, what they actually said, and could possibly be combined with other databases of personal information. Of course, the availability of those other databases depends on the data sharing policies of companies with which one engages in business. Unfortunately, most people never read the fine print when they sign up for rewards cards at retail stores or other promotions. If the store has a lax data sharing policy and collected your cell phone number when you signed up, then the club or café across town might be able to associate you with previous purchases and be able to target advertisements, offers, or anything else in your direction.

But advertising companies are treading carefully; the trust of a consumer is of extremely high value and firms are anxious to preserve that. The founder of LocaModa notes that “the future of out-of-home screen media is unlikely to follow [an] Orwellian model.”

An important question about this technology is whether or not it helps the social nature of the location. Some would say that the last thing we need is another excuse to pull out a cell phone in a café or club. In my own experience, it is common for digital natives to be in a social, public space and message friends that aren’t present. During the time it takes to communicate, the DN displaces him or herself from the environment they are in. They are temporarily closer to the recipient of the message, miles away, than other people just a few feet apart from them. (For more on this, see Sherry Turkle’s excellent piece, Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self.) Proponents of social graffiti spaces say this is just the opposite; it is immersive in the way it connects an individual to the people in the same space.

What do you think about social texting? Would you engage in it at a café or club? Do you think it helps or hurts the real life social relations between people?

– Tony P.


Zipit Messenger: Is there a need for specialization in the age of convergence?

Zipit Wireless of South Carolina has introduced a new product, the Zipit Wireless Messenger 2, targeted at teenage text message senders. The company markets the device as a way to avoid the fee-based text messaging plans most wireless carriers provide by relying on WiFi hotspots (ala iPhone) and IM clients like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger. For a $4.99 monthly fee, users can also send and receive text messages with cell phone users.

Personally, I find the product redundant for most users. Once equipped with a cell phone, few may carry around an additional device just to send messages. And for people that do adopt the product, its usefulness will depend on how often the user is inside a hotspot. I feel like a lot of the appeal of text messaging is the fact that it is entire mobile; one doesn’t need to relocate to send a message. The $149.99 Zipit Messenger 2 may not be conducive to truly ad hoc communication.

But the gadget is selling, at least in limited quantities. The Boston Globe reports sales in the tens of thousands. Whether it will reach critical mass may dependent on purchases for the upcoming holiday.

Do you think this product makes sense? Will teenagers use it as much as a phone? It appears to be in the exact opposite direction of the consumer electronics convergence craze we’ve witnessed in recent years. As other manufacturers are pushing smart phones that perform a host of different tasks, Zipit introduces a completely specialized and closed platform product. In my opinion, many DNs may find it inconvenient as it opposes to norms of constant connectedness and access to social online services. On the upside, it may reduce so-called information overload and distraction by only allowing access when within a hot spot. In that regard, it is more like an on/off utility instead of a continuous use personal tool.

Tony P


Digital Niche Communities

Prof. Oke’s comment a couple posts back and the coming end of the year reminded me of something I’d much rather forget — college applications. Early college decisions are coming back this Friday, and as a college freshman, the anxiety and the nerves of last year are still fresh on my mind. The stress of college applications naturally spilled over into my online life, so fall of my senior year, I began frequenting the forums at College Confidential.

College Confidential
bills its forums as the “Most popular on the Web!” The community is largely devoted to undergraduate college admissions, and its boards are populated with threads about college essays, interview tips, and choosing the right college college. There are a sizable number of parents and administrators on the site, but the large majority of posters are anxious teens.

As I have blogged about before, it makes sense that DNs will go to an online community for support and advice in times as stressful as college application season. Although I learned a great deal from those forums, I always came away vaguely uneasy. Whatever I gained was undoubtedly balanced out by the added stress from being in such a distorted environment. The site, unsurprisingly, caters mostly to students aiming for elite colleges. College Confidential is the kind of place that scoffs at 2400s and 4.0s. This isn’t be very healthy, is it?

The Internet can connect you with virtually anyone anywhere in the world, but we invariably choose to connect with individuals with whom we have common interests and goals. This creates self-perpetuating niche communities that may be skewed away from the mainstream. There, one can find acceptance for many different sets of values. High-pressure college admissions is a relatively innocuous example, but what if that niche community was, oh say, a pro-anorexia site?

The possible danger here is that DNs are at ages when their values are still being shaped, and the Internet can foster behavior that is healthy neither physically nor mentally. The Internet certainly did once have a reputation for being the hangout of loners and freaks. While I no longer hold this to be true, what is true is that there are communities that encourage maladjusted behavior. The proliferation of pro-anorexia sites is a particularly disturbing example, where members get tips for suppressing hunger and purging. A typical post might go something like this:

“Today was good. Only 200 calories + 5 hours at work where i’m on my feet all day. I feel a little dizzy, but the happy and proud feeling is 100x better. Although, i’m dreading tomorrow. I have to go to a restaurant with my friends for lunch.”

[Disclaimer] I hope this doesn’t come off as paranoid, as I do believe the vast majority of online discussion (not including spam of course) is productive and healthy.

Discussing ‘Born Digital’ with European Students

(Cross posted from Dr. Gasser’s blog)

John Palfrey and I are getting tremendously helpful feedback on the draft v.0.9 of our forthcoming book Born Digital (Basic Books, German translation with Hanser) from a number of great students at Harvard and St. Gallen Law School, respectively. Last week, John and I had an inspiring conversation about the current draft with our first readers on this side of the Atlantic: a small, but great and diverse group of law students here at The students, coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Singapore, and the U.S., were kind enough to share their feedback with us based on reaction papers they’ve drafted in response to assigned book chapters.

Today, the second session took place. John and I are currently revisiting the final chapter of the book. The “final” chapter, of course, is by no means “final” – even not if it once becomes a chapter of the printed book. What we’re trying to do is simply to synthesize some of the things we’ve said so far, and to look ahead once again and ask ourselves how the digital world will look like for our kids given the things we know – and we don’t know – about their digital lives. In this spirit, the last chapter of the book in particular is an open invitation to join the discussion about the promises and challenges of the Internet for a population that is born digital. Against this backdrop, we prepared three discussion questions for today’s session here in St. Gallen.

First, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for Digital Natives when it comes to digital technologies? Second, what are you most concerned about when thinking about the future of the Internet? Third, what approach – generically speaking – seems best suited to address the challenges you’ve identified?

Here are the students’ thoughts in brief:

Greatest opportunities:

  • Democratizing effect of the net: DNs can build their own businesses without huge upfront investments (Rene, Switzerland)
  • ICT enables networking among people across boundaries (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Encourages communication among DNs (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • Increased availability of all kind of information, allows fast development and sharing ideas among DNs (Jonas, Germany)
  • Availability of information, DN can go online and find everything they’re looking for; this shapes, e.g., the way DNs do research; as a result, world becomes a smaller place, more common denominators in terms of shared knowledge and culture (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Efficiency gains in all areas, including speed of access, spread of ideas, … (Eugene, Singapore)

Greatest challenges, long-term:

  • Problem of losing one’s identity – losing cultural identity in the sea of diversity (Eugene, Singapore)
  • Dependency on technology and helplessness when not having the technology available; DNs are becoming dependent on technology and lose ability to differentiate b/w reality and virtuality; other key challenge: bullying (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Who will get access to the digital world – only the wealthy kids in the West or others, too? Digital divide as a key problem (Jonas, Germany)
  • Addiction: DNs are always online and depend so much on Internet that it may lead to addictive behavior (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • DNs can’t distinguish between offline and online world, they can’t keep, e.g. online and offline identities separate (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Notion of friendship changes; DNs might forget about their friends in the immediate neighborhood and focus solely on the virtual (Rene, Switzerland)

Most promising approaches:

  • Teach digital natives how to use social networks and communicate with each other; law, in general, is not a good mode of regulation in cyberspace (Rene, Switzerland)
  • Technology may often provide a solution in response to a technologically-created problem like, e.g., privacy intrusion (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Don’t regulate too much, otherwise people won’t feel responsible anymore; education is key, help people to understand that it’s their own responsibility (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • The laws that are currently in place suffice (except in special circumstances); learning is key, but who shall be the teacher (since today’s teachers are not DNs)? (Jonas, Germany)
  • Generic legal rules are often not the right tool, problems change too fast; instead, kids need general understanding of how to handle technology; goal could be to strengthen their personality in the offline world so that they can transfer their confidence, but also skills to the online world (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Technology will most likely help DNs to solve many of the problems we face today; education is the basis, but focus needs to be on the question how to put education from theory into practice (Eugene, Singapore)

As always, we were running short in time, but hopefully we can continue our discussion online. Please join us, and check out our project wiki (new design, many thanks to Sarah!), our new DN blog, or for instance our Facebook group. John, our terrific team, and I are much looking forward to continuing the debate!

-Urs G.

Kindle: not your parents’ eBook.

On November 19, announced its first foray into hardware: a portable eBook reader called the Kindle. Amazon hopes the Kindle will become the iPod of books – a portable personal library you can take anywhere.

Amazon Kindle (image courtesy

That same day, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the results of a new study: young Americans are reading less.

So it makes sense that despite obvious similarities, the Kindle and the iPod target very different markets. Whereas Apple turned the iPod into an icon of digital native culture, Amazon is aiming the Kindle squarely at digital immigrants.

Look at the features Amazon is touting. A display that mimics the look of ink on paper. A built in wireless book store so you never have to touch a computer. The ability to change text size. In short, it’s designed for people who hate using computers and have bad eyesight.

Meanwhile, with a screen saver featuring the likes of Jane Austen and the Gutenberg printing press, along with what the popular technology blog Engadget calls “a big ol’ dose of the ugly,” the Kindle is almost aggressively unhip. As one analyst told the Wall Street Journal, “No one is going to buy Kindle for its sex appeal.”

Moreover, digital natives tend to be more comfortable reading from traditional LCD screens than their parents are. Indeed, some of us, myself included, actually prefer reading from a screen. I’d much rather read a book on, say, an iPhone, than have to carry a separate device.

But as the NEA study (3.3 MB PDF) makes clear, most readers aren’t digital natives. If older consumers take to the Kindle in droves, perhaps they could become the digital natives of literature, defining the new paradigm for how we read digital books.

In a sense then, whether knowingly or not, Amazon is performing a large scale social experiment. We can’t wait to see the results.

-Jesse Baer

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You

“I don’t have a problem,” Chang-hoon said in an interview three days after starting the camp. “Seventeen hours a day online is fine.”

The New York Times
has an article about a South Korean boot camp for kids with Internet addictions. South Korea, which claims to be the most wired nation on the planet, recently held an international symposium on Internet addiction . According to a government study, 30% of its youths under 18 (this people would be Digital Natives) are at risk for Internet addiction. With dramatic stories like gamers dying after gaming binges (one such case), Internet addiction is becoming an increasingly discussed phenomenon in Asia. In the United States, however, the American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognize Internet addiction as a disorder, though some argue that it should.

To go off on a slightly tangential idea, the question on my mind is whether this is a matter of a generational shift. Seventeen hours a day, like the kid quoted above, is excessive, but where do you draw the line? When most people think of Internet addiction, they probably think of gaming, yet what most Digital Natives spend hours online doing is socializing. Even in Internet gaming, the social interactions with fellow gamers is an important component. Meanwhile, for the average teenager, “I’m addicted to Facebook!” is an excuse for procrastination I often hear (and occasionally use), yet is it correct to characterize this as an addiction if you’re building and reinforcing social networks? The answer will probably be colored by your opinion on the quality of online social interactions. Either way, Internet use is becoming increasingly common and even necessary in today’s digital world.

-Sarah Z.