Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Exo-Nationals and The Digital Lord of The Flies
Last week Josh Corman was at a conference and live tweeting commentary and thoughts online about INFOSEC and around the ideas of Cyberwar. At one point he mentioned the idea of “Digital Natives” against the backdrop of nation states and it struck me again as something I needed to expand upon. Though Josh had said he wanted a chance to explain further to me his ideas before I posted I don’t feel like I think that differently than he does about the topic. Though perhaps I do, I am not sure as I have yet to hear his ideas in full but I wanted to get this out of my head now so here it is.
Digital natives as a term has been around since 2001 when Marc Prensky coined the term in his work “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” was published. In this article he explains the basis of the idea that since kids from 2000 on (I would say earlier for some of us) have grown up with computers and the internet as a ubiquitous appliance/medium they tend to be greatly different in thinking, acting, and general attitudes than their parents and older generations. These people who did not grow up with the technology always around them and used by them are termed to be “Digital Migrants” and have emigrated to the use of the Internet and technologies. As such, these immigrants are often seen as foreigners in the digital world with antiquated ideas on how things should work and methods of doing things. The article (see below link) also goes into some detail on the cognitive differences as well as social differences that Presnky was seeing in the studies he was conducting.
Another paper that Prensky wrote was on the emerging online lives of these “digital natives” in that you could see the emergent behaviors progressing as online life (Web2.0 and Social Media for example) expanded to allow for more connectivity and social malleability. In both though the idea is put forth that we now have a generation or a couple really, that are inherently living their lives in a completely different way than their parents and all of it predicated on rapidly changing technology. This idea lends itself to the problems we face today as INFOSEC ptactitioners, governments, law enforcement agencies, and as parents to children who on the face of it are cognitively different than we are. Add to this the problem that much of our lives are now greatly affected by these technologies (banks, power, credit, reputations etc) that this generation or two now can control at very young ages for good or for ill and we have a problem that we must understand in order to manage.
Moving on we have the Digital Immigrants, those who have moved into the digital space with smart phones, PC’s, Laptops, Ipads, and the like. Many do not leverage these devices in the ways that the natives do and in fact do not understand them on the whole. Outside of the people in the business of creating these wonders and creating their infrastructure the bulk of the populace older than 30 on average have little cognition of how things really work. I know this is a gross generality but just go with me on this and let’s not quibble ok? So, we have all these people who still use paper books and write things on pads and the natives think on the whole that they are a foreign species according to Prensky.
What really shakes out for me is that on the whole the LEA’s, the Gov, The Generals, and corporate execs of the world are all pretty much on the whole not of the Z or iGeneration (Natives) This means that they are all immigrants and by the terms of the idea not really connected to the ideals, attitudes, and cognitive changes that the iGen’s have in place. Add to this that aforementioned inability to really understand the technology itself nor how it could be leveraged and we have a pretty big problem with the world don’t we? Look at all this talk over cyberwar today and the outmoded modalities that are being used to try and grapple with the problems. How many times have you had the experience gentle reader with your boss or some other person as you try to explain to them the security problems with technology just to get a blank look back? …You get my point…
So we have the digital natives on average running circles around the immigrants (kids vs. parents, iGen vs. those in power) and friction occurs. All you really need look to are the cases of Aaron Swartz and Weev to see it play out in the media and the courthouse. What we commonly see as nothing really wrong the immigrants see as abhorrent, illegal, and immoral. The fact that say Weev just wrote a script to enumerate pages to us is nothing while in the eyes of the corporate types and the law it is an offense worthy of going to jail for 3.5 years and a lot of money in recompense to the corporation that was enumerated. Until such time as the immigrants are all gone and only the natives inhabit the net and the meatspace we will not have substantive cognition of the new generations mores and means of living with the technologies and how the laws can be changed to make a little more sense about offenses online as well as problems like cyber-warfare. It will take a at least another generation until parity is reached.
Digital Exo Nationals
While I think that the ideas of Digital Natives and Immigrants was what Josh had in mind as the core to his statement I also think he was alluding to those natives as being their own state. This is an idea that has been brought about by Anonymous and I think could be termed as “Digital Exo-Nationals” Those out there who feel that the net is a stateless space where no one state rules them (nation) nor do the mores of meatspace apply within the electronic world they live in. A group like Anonymous can claim to be truly stateless and on the face of it they can be on one level, but I think that on the whole anyone who is not persistently living just online (meaning they reside inside of a computer network) is in fact affected greatly by where they were raised, by whom, and are the product of their upbringing. This fact will always color people’s reactions and there will always be some form of nationalism to them as they interact online or take up arms in defense of some ideal.
With that said though I think it is nominally an idea that has merit. I believe in many ways the deizens of the net (i.e. the iGen/Natives) think of themselves as apart from the “real world’ that they physically inhabit when they are online, which today is pretty persistent at a connectivity level. This cognitive dissonance creates quite the dichotomy of perceptions for the natives. Once offline they must generally adhere to the structures of the “old world” as opposed to the pretty much wild west of the Internet and on average they manage to separate the two lives much like the quote from “The Matrix” by Agent Smith;
Agent Smith: It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you… help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias “Neo” and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.
This is pretty much the perception for the immigrants right? While on the other side Neo would consider himself a freedom fighter or a seeker looking for a basic truth that the old system (i.e. The Matrix) is trying to prevent him from seeing. Think about this idea for a minute while reflecting on Anonymous today in the Wikileaks age. I think you will see the parable here and this is a core issue between Immigrant culture versus the new Native one. It is interesting to note though, that in the case of the Matrix, the natives are in fact both Neo and Smith in one sense but only Neo resides in a corporeal way… But I digress into philosophy here and before I break out my copy of “Simulacra and Simulation” on you I will stop.
Ok back to the issue at hand. We have digital natives now that perceive themselves as “Exo-Nationals” the net is their country and it is outside of the corporeal world. Their rules are not the rules of the real world and their mores are different. Their culture is one that is new and evolving and unfortunately the world they inhabit is not really theirs to control. Since the backbone of the infrastructure is owned by corporations and governments they’re really only renting if not actually squatting in their exo-national domain. This fact however does not stop them from trying to control the networks and in many ways they are able to through hacking and the use of good OPSEC. You see, in reality the natives who consider themselves Exo-Nationals are in fact guerrilla’s for the most part to my thinking.
The Digital Lord of The Flies
No matter the dialectic, there are issues to the dichotomy between the natives and the immigrants that can beget darker things. Since on average the common kid today can bypass most protections a parent my try to purchase for their home computers, that is if they are even cognizant enough to try, we have a generation that pretty much can run amok online. Without oversight the digital natives pretty much run the show. This has been touched upon by sociologists studying 4chan and Anonymous in the past and is quite valid a point. The mores of the natives are greatly different within the online world than those that we would teach them in the offline one. All of this is really predicated on the idea that once online the native is “anonymous” by use of technological means in the extreme or just the perception thereof by those who do not cognitively understand it (younger natives still learning)
Generally though the natives learn quickly that they can do many more things online that parents and others would find frightful offline and in public. It is this “disinhibition effect” through percieved or technical anonymity that allows for this behavior to evolve and thus gives rise to what I call the “Digital Lord of The Flies” effect. In essence the children have been left to their own devices on a digital island and those more powerful take over and rule rather mercilessly. In the last few days I got a first hand view of this effect with regard to teens and twenty somethings in the gamer/Xbox verse. Where gaming had become banal some of these “crews” or “Teams” began upping the ante by hacking, carding, and what they call GT (gamer tag) “Jacking” All criminal activities that are perceived by these kids as ok because they are not doing these things to people in reality (and by reality I mean in person in front of them)
There seems to be a disconnect within the psyche for these kids where their actions are just not real because it happens online. Some of these kids that I tracked online due to recent events with the attacks on Brian Krebs that leads me to believe some of them may in fact be on the road to sociopathy. This though is not the case for all of them of course so one has to ask how is it that they feel so moved to carry out these deeds online and not feel the least bit of remorse about them? It is this disconnect that fascinates me really and I will be looking further at it in the future. As more and more generations move into the natives category being born into a world with prevalent technologies we will only see more of these problems until that parity I spoke of happens. When the parents of all these kids are just as savvy about the net as their kids are, then we will be able to teach them.. Of course in thinking about this it comes to me that perhaps that will only shift to natives teaching natives the same behaviors…
Time will tell I guess.