By Jerry Mooney
When Snowden revealed that the US government was spying on American citizens there was a divided response: a loud and incredulous demand that these violations cease, coupled with a tepid, meh. The incredulous reaction was vocalized by those who valued the Constitutional guarantees of freedom and privacy. The “meh” was shared by a growing group of young people who collectively have little expectation of online privacy.
If this sounds like an indictment of the younger group, it’s not. It’s an observation as to how the generations respond differently to the same events. The younger group has often been termed digital natives. The term was coined to refer to those who were born into a world where there always was home-based technology, like the personal computer. They grew up in an age where computers, smartphones, the internet, social media and video games were not only normal, but omnipresent. Coming into the world during these times makes them digital natives. Like any native to any culture, people growing up in these times are fluent in theirs: the digital world.
Conversely, those born before the ubiquitous presence of technology are digital immigrants. These folks had to migrate from the world prior to the home computer, the smartphone and social media, to the new world. Like most immigrants, they are required to adapt to the new culture and although it’s possible, it will be just that, an adaptation. The immigrant will always, to some extent, show a non-native relationship to native culture. This is true with those born before the digital era.
There has been much ink spilled describing the chasms between these generations and the complications involved in communications among them. This chasm has been expressing itself recently in the reactions to the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying the events that surround those revelations. Recent events keep this topic relevant, like Apple’s battle with the FBI over a terrorists locked iPhone, Snowden’s European clemency, the passing of the USA Freedom Act and the mass shootings in Paris and Yahoo’s CEO demanding more transparency by the NSA
To the digital immigrant, these events represent the ever encroaching power of the government, insidiously reaching into our lives and the events that justify further violations. This is a generational warrant to resist, protest and fight back. Lives have been lost fighting overseas, ostensibly for freedom, therefore it must be stopped in all incarnations.
These violations are not new. The NSA has been spying on US citizens along with the rest of the world for decades. The only difference is that the technology has improved and therefore increased the efficiency of what they do. This is intuitive to the digital native and is therefore the details are uninteresting.
When a digital immigrant points out that the domestic spying was supposed to have accompanying warrants, the digital native points to their continuous distrust of governments and these violations merely maintain their cynicism.
When a digital immigrant says the NSA is spying, the digital native says get better encryption. When the digital immigrant says self-censorship, the digital native says best practices.
Digital natives seem intrinsically distrustful of institutions that digital immigrants venerated, like religion, marriage and government. So the government spying can be seen just as outrageous as their best friend getting married or baptized.
Although there has been a historic danger associated with an apathetic population, it seems applying those lessons of history may be less appropriate, because the future will be inhabited by a culture of people less competitive and less adversarial. Perhaps this will make written declarations of rights less significant, but also less necessary.
It’s interesting to look at the intersection of these two groups. The native is constitutionally naive, while the immigrant is digitally and modernly so. This is where the two must learn to communicate. What’s obvious is that there isn’t a gap between what they think is ultimately right, it’s merely the path there.