Review of ‘Digital Natives and the Return of the Local Cause’ by Anat Ben-David. Essay from the Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? book collective, published by Centre for Internet and Society, India and HIVOS, The Netherlands

Ben-David’s piece is an informed attempt to resolve the conceptual fuzziness of the term “Digital Native.” She attempts this in a philosophical manner: trying to move away from the ontological “who are Digital Natives?” to an epistemological “when and where are Digital Natives?” Her reasoning is that this change in perspective will allow us to unpack the hybrid term and thus  determine if it refers to a unique phenomenon worth exploring.

To answer the when and the where, Ben-David situates the term into its constituencies: digital and native, contextualizing the words using two approaches; historiographical (when) for the digital and geopolitical (where) for the native.

Digital” is situated, semantically, in the broader framework of technology-mediated social activism. The author applies the concept placing two events side-by-side: First, the 1999 manifestations against World-trade Organization protests in Seattle and then the 2011 Tahir Square protests in Egypt. Are these two phenomena different in nature? Is Tahir Square a more technologically advanced version of Seattle? Are the basic mechanisms the same, albeit with new faces and shinier phones?

Ben-David postulates three reasons for placing the manifestations on a different trajectory. First, “The Internet” of 1999 and “The Internet” of 2011 are quite different. The second is that the demographic constituting the protest are not the same: in 1999 they were mostly Civic Society Organization (CSO) employees and volunteers, while in Tahrir they were mostly civilians and concerned citizens connected through their local networks.

Tahir Square. Conceptually different from Seattle.

The third concerns the spatial and symbolic nature of the protests. In Seattle, the protests were against large transnational corporations; Seattle was chosen because it hosted the World Trade Organization that year. In Egypt, the protest was directed against local corruption and concerned itself with local governance issues. Tahir Square was chosen because the protests were directly about, of and in Egypt.

Which brings us to the where. The term “Native” is used by Ben-David to refer to the ongoing structural shifts towards localized activism campaigns. This change came with the growing realization that transnational activism campaigns who attempted to affect change across loosely cohesive cross-sections of the world, tended to lose touch with their points of origin and remain in suspended animation. Local campaigns seem to be more responsive and agile, especially in their ability to enter into dialogues with the needs of local populations. The spontaneity of action, the granular and modular level of the causes, and the lowered threshold of action needed to initiate a movement are some of the aspects Ben-David sees in emergent campaigns, which are critically different from activism campaigns in the past.

Of course, the location and time eventually intertwine. A growing trend in the development of the digital world has been the localization of frameworks, methodologies and approaches. The author explains this change using Richard Roger’s four stages of the evolution of politics about the web: Web as global space, web as public sphere, web as interconnected social networks, and the current one, web as a localized phenomenon.  By doing this, Ben-David is able to shows us without telling us that the distinction between when and where is purely analytical and that they really are a single entity of the time-space continuum.

A different kind of hybrid-spacetime

Ben-David succeeds in contextualizing both the digital and the native as different sides of the same coin: as two manifestations of the growth and maturation process that technology-mediated activism has been through over the last 10 years. The result is an internally-consistent perspective which sees Digital Natives habituating hybrid-timespaces alongside heterogeneous actors, where the relationship between the local and the global is contingent, transitory, dynamic—and knowledge can be transformed and adapted to fit actors and their causes.

Samuel Tettner is a Venezuela-born globally situated cyborg, interested in science, technology and their critical and empowering understanding, currently pursuing a Masters degree in Society, Science and Technology in the Netherlands.