When the Internet Is Your Hometown


Settle in and get comfortable, kids, this is a long one.

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of digital natives.

The term, generally credited to Mark Prensky, is intended to draw a distinction between the relationship to digital technology experienced by people who grew up with it (“digital natives”) versus those who came to it later in life (“digital immigrants”). The most commonly used illustration is that a digital immigrant might have bought a new digital camera, where a native simply bought a camera. It’s not unimportant to the native that their new camera is digital, it’s simply not particularly noteworthy or surprising.

But I’ve come to believe that this formulation of digital natives requires some refinement, and also that it has implications that I’ve only recently started to consider. The most obvious issue in designating people as “digital natives” is that “digital” isn’t a fixed monolithic entity. Being comfortable with a filmless camera doesn’t necessarily imply the same degree of comfort with a Kindle, SnapChat, a Makerbot, or Reddit. “Digital” isn’t a coherent thing, but rather a thread that is being woven through an ever larger part of our day-to-day lives.

Nor, for that matter, is there a clear line of demarcation. As digital technology continues to evolve, even its natives are presented with new and unfamiliar facets that will seem pedestrian to people born just a few years later.

The digital native/digital settler dividing line seems to make sense when you’re of the generation for whom everything digital (with the possible exception of that Mattel Football game) represents a fantastic new world of possibilities, but that breaks down very quickly. The experience of a kid who has an iPhone in her pocket all the time is different from that of a kid six years earlier who had a Dell in his room at home. Neither one might ever think to prefix “camera” with “digital,” but lumping them together as digital natives seems overly broad.

And even if we limit the scope to pre- and post-Internet people, which hews closer to my interests anyway, we encounter similar difficulties. The Internet that I browsed on a Powerbook 160 is not the Internet we have today.

As with the broader digital, the Internet is not monolithic nor static.  It’s not much of a stretch to characterize the Internet as a city full of neighborhoods: at any point in time the city is adding new suburbs, has neighborhoods that have remained largely unchanged for years, others that are undergoing rapid gentrification, and some experiencing slow decline. It’s always in the process of becoming something else.

But as crude and problematic as this pre-Internet/post-Internet split is, I still think it worth exploring. For all the changes to the various neighborhoods, and all the new people moving in, I believe there’s one constant of huge significance in the city that is the Internet: the degree of access it enables, both to information and to other people.

Growing up in a world where you can take advantage of that access without giving it a second thought does, I suspect, create a mindset that’s different from earlier generations — a native mindset. But I also suspect that there is a cost involved.

E.B. White’s city was New York, rather than the Internet. He wrote beautifully about it, and I bring this up because I take every possible opportunity to bring up Here Is New York and recommend that people read it, but also because Mr. White saw this all coming as far back as 1948. He wrote:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. […] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

A number of years ago I was struck by how well that characterized what I saw happening on the Internet. You can read the post if you like, but the key idea is this: I feel like I, and many people I know, are settlers online. We made the decision to move here because it offered possibilites we couldn’t get anywhere else. The Internet also has its fair share of commuters, people who come for work, or maybe a little entertainment on the weekend, but for whom it’s just a place they go sometimes. And (an update from the original post in 2008) I think there are now some true natives hanging around, who never had to make the decision — that metaphorical move to the city — that I did.

And there’s that idea of “city” popping up again.

In his speech Innovation Under Austerity, given at the 2012 Freedom to Connect conference, Eben Moglen also briefly touched on cities. As with Here Is New York, I strongly recommend that you read (or watch) the entire thing, but here’s the part I want to bring up:

There is a reason that cities have always been engines of economic growth. It isn’t because bankers live there. Bankers live there because cities are engines of economic growth. The reason cities have been engines of economic growth since Sumer, is that young people move to them, to make new ways of being. Taking advantage of the fact that the city is where you escape the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm. “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” was a fair question in 1919 and it had a lot do with the way the 20th century worked in the United States. The city is the historical system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living. We are closing it.

And that’s another role that the Internet fills these days. How much — or whether — your identity offline and your identity online overlap is a matter of choice. Even if you don’t make the physical move out of your hometown, you have access to a “system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living.” The access, to information and to people, that the Internet provides lets us explore who we are, or who we might become.

The Venn diagram of my online and offline identities is pretty much a circle (though I’ve heard that the online is somewhat funnier), but my presence online begins when I was an adult with a reasonably good sense of who I was. And in addition, the commercial Internet itself was in its infancy when I got online. Sure, I may have created a regrettable GeoCities page or two, but they’re gone. Ill-advised forum posts? They disappeared when the sysop got tired of running the server. Despite the efforts of Google and the Wayback Machine, the Internet actually used to forget things reasonably often.

I feel increasingly confident in saying that is no longer the case. For post-Internet people, the digital natives, the Internet has the potential to become a hometown that you can never leave.

For a 21 year old who joined Facebook in 2006, Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2010, how many former selves are already recorded on those services? Josh Miller, in a Branch discussion around the introduction of Facebook’s Graph Search, wrote “I’m just peeved that the stuff I said as a sophomore in high school is now going to be easily retrievable by my friends. Sure, it’s public now, but it’s impossible to access.”

If you’re a digital native, for whom the Internet has always simply existed, and also a high school sophomore who has the decision-making skills of a high school sophomore, that seems like a complicated situation. The tools that we’re using to share things online are now real, big businesses doing their damndest to stay big, and they do that by making it easy and worthwhile for us to put more of ourselves online (and keeping as much of it as they possibly can).

For generations already among us, the 15 year old self is no longer the contents of a carboard box in somebody’s garage, but the bottom of the Facebook Timeline. And it’s probably visible to a surprisingly large number of people.

Some time ago I ran across a very short piece of writing somewhere on the web. That original source has — appropriately enough — since disappeared, but you can still find it online if you know where to look. The more I see the Internet turning into some form of the Permanent Record that loomed large in junior high mythology, the more I think that this uncredited, untraceable writer saw something sooner than the rest of us.

The Ghost Postulate

These people will not own cell phones. They will not run blogs or update statuses on social networks. They will not have email addresses, they will not watch movie trailers or download music or buy apps.

And in that way, they will not exist. They will be a part of no corporate consumer surveys, they will not receive personalized advertisements, google and facebook will know nothing about them. They will speak to their friends face to face or not at all. They will carry paper and pencil and know only what their eyes and ears tell them.

Mark my words.

Eventually, there will be a subculture of ghosts.