Children, music, and discourses of the “digital native”

I presented a paper titled “US children, music technology, and discourses of the ‘digital native'” this weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. This was part of a wonderful roundtable on “Children as Cultural Agents: Informed or Unformed?” organized by Trevor Wiggins. The abstract for my contribution is below:

Digital music technologies like file-sharing and portable music devices are frequently presented as icons of rapid change in the U.S. media environment, and U.S. children and youth are often situated as core users of these technologies. Discourses of the “digital native” position young people as uniquely competent users of new media technologies. Unlike many approaches to children’s “unformed” status as cultural participants, these discourses present children as uniquely “informed” practitioners of a highly mediated and commercialized culture of musical consumption. But discourses of the digital native also partake of the exoticizing tropes that the term “native” often implies, othering children’s technological and commercial knowledge as esoteric and potentially dangerous (as when celebratory discussions of musical “sharing” veer into worry about “piracy,” “theft,” and the devolution of 20th century media industrial forms). This contribution to the roundtable will explore how children’s musical practice are framed through discourses of technological exoticism, and it will use ethnographic data from research with K–8 schoolchildren in Vermont to question presentations of children as uniquely competent users of certain technologies. I seek to destabilize the boundaries of “informed” and “unformed” in presentations of children’s musical cultures by problematizing “competence” as the framework for thinking about cultural and technological practices. From this position, I will argue that ethnomusicological discussions of children are relevant to contexts beyond childhood, and we should think about adulthood, and adults’ cultural and technological practices, as also blurring the boundaries between informed and unformed.

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