Creating a Generation of Digital Natives

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Daniel Ben-Horin. Daniel is the founder of CompuMentor/TechSoup, which puts on the NetSquared conference. Daniel has been named to the Nonprofit Times Power and Influence Top 50 a number of times.

By Daniel Ben-Horin

The bone I am gnawing on is about connecting these dots:

* There is something intrinsic in ‘knowing technology’ that makes the person with knowledge want to pass it on. So there is an almost infinite pool of ‘desire to help’ in the technological world (and I do mean ‘world’)

* The technologies associated with Web 2 make it easier and easier for communities to self-organize (although it is still by no means a slam dunk to do so, even with the new tools;  some level of external catalyzation and some level of structure are essential to successful, sustainable efforts, viz the relationship between Jimmy Wales and his staff and the larger Wikipedia community.)

* Financial resources are available for big web-based projects invoking large communities; the chance to be associated with the next Wikipedia or to be perceived as a leader in the climate change arena is very attractive to corporate sponsors. Likewise, some foundations see the potential.

* Absent a coherent effort to link the three dots above, there will be insufficient technological intellectual capital to train and support on new technologies in the developing world. This is an absolutely classic and pervasive issue. The digital divide has been ‘traditionally’ considered a matter of hardware and software, but it is as much or more a matter of training and support.  Projects like the xo (formerly ‘hundred dollar laptop’;  this is a good piece on that issue) offer a lot of promise for abetting a generation of digital natives (in the techie not colonialist sense of the word!) but in the short term, and in the longer as well, it is essential to create a way for these digital natives to get assistance along their learning curve, and also to create a way for the full demographic spectrum to learn to use these tools. And to do it soon.

Wiserearth seem to have a piece of this puzzle. The Impact Alliance might have an interesting piece or,Techfinder, a project CompuMentor and NTEN developed has a piece (but only a piece).

I remember once hearing Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices talk about human rights bloggers, who often operate clandestinely, which it makes it all the harder for them to secure technology assistance. I think about Bill Lester, of Engender Health, telling me about an internet outage in South Africa and the very specific skills it takes to just understand how to talk to the ISP there. I think about ngos around the world working against extreme odds with the barest-boned of patchwork IT structures and so little access to help.

And I think about all the people who can help, want to help and, with current tools, can help remotely.

A project to build a largely self-organizing database of technology experts/helpers/mentors and to enable those people to create beneficial interactions with organizations that need help would need project planning and development resources would need, I think, at least two skilled staff for the first year– one a very technically savvy Web 2 savant who could figure out how to create the necessary interfaces among existing resources and build new ones as needed; the second a more development oriented person who could articulate the social possibilities and build the relationships.

What do you think?


  1. Sounds great, Daniel! I think that we are positioned now to be on the cusp of very terrific things in the dispersal and development/education of a global technology movement; or, we could just keep going as we are and let the divide remain/grow. You have a great idea, let’s just jump in and make it happen! Let me know where I sign up to watch it grown and help! 🙂

  2. Phil says:

    Yes, to all you said. To connect your dots, though, you also need to foment a culture of shared purpose between the Gen Y Digital Natives and the technologically challenged Boomers who control the corporate hierarchies, the established foundations, and the philanthropic networks. We don’t go to each other’s conferences, don’t have close friendships across the silos, and are in only the early stages of making common cause. But we will!

  3. MichaelK says:

    I work on wiserearth, thanks for mentioning it.

    Though wiserearth has a lot of self-organizing potential, as a wiki-based database of over 100,000 nonprofit orgs and resources, we can’t expect everyone to jump on board automatically, especially considering how a wiki-directory isn’t exactly a common thing.

    Like you explained, we’ll need to make the site accessible to various learning curves so that our site gets people and thoughts representing both the “developing” world but also everyday Internet users in the US. This will come from technical changes (like optimizing the site for slower bandwidths), simplifying the site, and some personal outreach and guidance, which we are working on. If you have any suggestions or comments please login and let us know!

  4. Amy–Thanks for your offer and we won’t forget it.

    Phil-I agree completely and that’s what NetSquared is all about (as you quite presciently noted in your blog about a year ago!). Our plan now is to grow the N2 Conference into a full-fledged, ongoing program that will have a big emphasis on forging those links.

    Michael–We’re going to sit down with Wiserearth folks tomorrow to discuss possible synergies. I do think there’s a critical need for an effort that is just about the nuts and bolts (and vision of course) of creating a functional global help system.