Battle in Print: Response to Norman Lewis

Robin Walsh


Norman Lewis substitutes the myth of the ‘digital native’ with the parable of the ‘indoor child’; neither narrative fully accounts for the complex, multi-faceted, relationship that exists between young people and new technology, argues Robin Walsh.

Norman Lewis’ well argued piece provides some food for thought. He suggests that young people’s use of technology is conditioned by qualitative changes in childhood itself; a more adult-surveyed and risk-averse upbringing leads children to express themselves through Information Technology (IT). It’s an interesting argument, and one that has merit, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

Whilst children today may not have the freedom of Norman’s generation, I’m not convinced it’s entirely useful to replace the one-dimensional view of the young ‘digital native’ (whether seen positively or negatively), with a discussion of the ‘indoor child’.

Most young people simply use these technologies because they’re useful - and this doesn’t need to be explained with reference to sociological categories. The vast majority of online activity is profoundly mundane, and not necessarily that different from what went before. Instant messaging replaces the telephone, computer games replace going to the arcade or whatever kids used to get up to, and embarrassing poetry is simply disseminated to a potentially wider audience.

It’s also clear that the initial (and most dedicated) users of Facebook are students - a group not normally noted for suffering excessive parental supervision. A similar point can be made for social networks like WAYN (Where Are You Now), and its loyal following amongst backpackers. The dissemination of these technologies can’t be reduced to a single factor.

Where I do think that Norman is absolutely right is when he argues that the debate on young people and new technology is really about adults and their neuroses, rather than about anything that children and young people actually get up to.

Whilst Norman focuses on the more paranoid responses that new technologies elicit (such as fears of paedophiles and bullying), it’s clear that simultaneously there exists an almost euphoric eulogising of certain aspects of IT. In recent months it’s been practically impossible to avoid inane articles discussing how Facebook and Second Life are going to change the world - in publications that are not nerdy technology magazines. The broadsheets, Newsnight, Channel 4 and the New Scientist to name just a few have covered this issue extensively, space that would have previously been reserved for important affairs of state.

This contradictory love-hate relationship can lead to both the demonisation of young people’s authentic use of technology, and a drive to colonise it. For example, the massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft (played by teenagers) is accused of being an addictive menace, at the same time that Second Life (another massive multiplayer online game often played by the middle-aged) has been lauded.

I’d contend that these two responses, the fearful and the over-excited, are two sides of the same coin - driven by a disconnection between the generations, and the collapse of adult authority that Norman identifies.

As Norman suggests, what gets lost in all this is the real transformative potential of this technology; I for one (honestly) don’t understand how an office could have operated before email. Obsessing over the juvenile online content distracts us from where this technology will really make a difference.

Robin Walsh works as a producer of scientific conferences for the pharmaceutical industry. An occasional freelance writer, on topics ranging from binge drinking to Second Life, he was part of the team that organised last year’s Battle of Ideas.

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