Sawyer Gouw Ranzetta: Digital Native

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “digital native.” Coined by Marc Prensky, the phrase refers to those who have grown up in the “digital age” surrounded by cell phones, computers, and social media. Digital natives are thought to be more adept at using technology and find technology more integral to their lives, although the idea is contested. However, I’ve found that I might be a digital native in a different sense as well: I’m a native of Palo Alto, a city at the heart of Silicon Valley known for technological innovation. When I moved away from the Bay Area, my interest in new technology faded. This summer, however, I plan to return home to examine how technology shaped the spaces I grew up in and influenced my coming of age.

The internet is largely understood as immaterial, an idea furthered by terms like “cloud technology,” and most coverage of internet start-ups focuses on the genius of individual founders and the intensity of the working environment. I believe that the Silicon Valley mythos stems from an idealization of its skilled labor force and that by emphasizing tech entrepreneurship, people obscure the material consequences of Internet technologies like the environmental toll of data centers or the influence of algorithms on behavior. I’m developing a short documentary that puts my research in conversation with my personal experiences. The film will largely be composed of exterior shots of significant places in Palo Alto’s history and have sparse narration inspired by Chantal Akerman’s documentary News From Home.

Still from Akerman’s News From Home. Image Courtesy of Criterion.

I have spent the past couple of weeks researching the growth of the technology sector in Silicon Valley by reading The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margret O’Mara, Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy, and Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up by John Carreyrou. Each of these books tackles the contrasting narratives of Silicon Valley as either an entrepreneurial haven or a hub of irresponsible, wealthy founders run amok. I was pleasantly surprised that none of the books bought into either wholesale but rather posited nuanced theses on the role of tech.

O’Mara’s focus on the role of Washington and public policy in the growth of the technology sector in the Bay surprised me, as it challenges common rhetoric around entrepreneurship and free-market capitalism in Silicon Valley. One of Levy’s theses is that, despite Facebook’s negative influence, the creation of a global social network was inevitable, whether Zuckerberg built it or not. I am critical of this idea as I believe many of Facebook’s harms result from consistently prioritizing growth over user well-being, which is a choice rather than an inevitability. Still, Levy made me reckon with the fact that it was hard to anticipate what Facebook would become because we never had anything like it before. Levy points to a philosophical question about how best to achieve progress and what we are willing to sacrifice to get there, which I will continue grappling with as I research.

Old thumbs-up sign outside Facebook’s headquarters. Image courtesy of daveynin.

I’ve also spent the past couple of weeks relearning p5.js, a form of JavaScript used for creative coding. I don’t know if anything that I code will make it into my final project, but after reading all about hackers, I wanted to remind myself what the experience of coding is like and consider how something as practical as coding can be transformed into art.

A simple program I coded that generates randomly colored circles on a timed basis. Image courtesy of the author.

Cover image courtesy of Scanrail.

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