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"Open Source Reality": Douglas Rushkoff Examines the Effects of Open Source

Yesterday, popular culture commentator and "cyberpunk" Douglas Rushkoff gave a talk on "Open Source Reality" at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. This lecture was a fourth in a series on understanding the culture and practices of Digital Natives, or the generation who has been raised with the computer as a central part of their lives.

Rushkoff, who teaches media theory at New York University's Interactive Telecommuncations Program, said the Internet is allowing people to more easily gather information and participate in discussions and debates. He said the open source applications that have emerged from universities in past years have greatly helped by stirring innovation and encouraging dialogue. Rushkoff says that while previous generations were focused on competition and the individual, he believes the Internet has provided a powerful vehicle for networking and building ideas within communities. Indeed, he says today's digital natives are much more attuned to collaboration, whether in school or at work, due to the Internet's collaborative atmosphere.

However, all is not rosy if the participants are not willing to question the sources, information, and history that accompanies any application or website. Just as digital natives previously were early video gamers who eventually learned to write code, it is essential that today's Internet participants not only receive and read the information- Rushkoff says they must learn to write it as well. He believes that access to the Internet, accompanied by a questioning, seeking nature, will allow the formerly passive to become action-oriented. Otherwise, he says, the danger of not learning "the code" is that the code will be used on you.

Most will agree that applications, networking sites, and accessible information that encourage action, rather than passivity, are commendable. However, it is incumbent upon the participants that they develop a greater sense of history and background before simply acting. The ability to network and make a difference is fine, but not if the participant is uninformed or simply pushing forth the agenda of a self-selected, narrow network. One of the audience members at Rushkoff's talk suggested the phrase, "Those who do not know history are damned to repeat it," was outdated and inaccurate. She said now is the time for us to "write history" and not focus on the past. A man identifying himself as a historian said later that it is vital that people have a concept of what has taken place in the past in order to better understand the present. He disputed the notion that the generations that went to the movie theaters and later watched televisions in their homes were merely passive recipients of the media's influence. Rather, he said people may have not understood the mechanics of the film projectors or televisions, but they had opinions and arguments on what media was directed at them.

The ability to explore a plethora of sites does not equal intellectual curiousity, nor does it prevent the participant/student from suffering from ideological or educational insularity. So, the notion that the Internet has made some sort of demarcation between the passive and active, depending on a person's generation, is not quite accurate. While Rushkoff is hopeful that technology and networking will result in greater teamwork and dialogue, there are folks in other disciplines who would not seem so hopeful (see Putnam's Bowling Alone). Furthermore, what does it mean for a society when the students have excellent Internet skills, but cannot place the American Civil War in the correct century?

Perhaps the concern is not so much with the applications themselves. It is with the approach we take when we get caught up with the novelty of easier communication, and forget the substance and power the Internet can wield for each of us.

(The thoughts expressed in this blog are not necessarily reflective of the positions taken by EDUCAUSE or the higher education community. They belong solely to the blogger.)



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