Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Three)

Another common misperception is that young people do not care about intellectual property. What did you research show in terms of the attitudes towards “free downloads”?

 

I’ll start out by saying that my chapter on property was probably the most difficult one to write – in large part because the issues around intellectual property in a digital age are so complex and contested. The ease with which we can access and remix others’ content provides an array of positive opportunities, but also raises questions and concerns about ownership and authorship.

 

In our interviews with youth, we sought to understand to what extent their thinking about topics such as music downloading and other uses of online content was morally and ethically sensitive. In other words, to what extent did youth consider near or distant effects on others associated with a decision to download a piece of music illegally, or copy and paste a portion of someone else’s writing for a school assignment? As I report in the book, youth often embraced the belief that creators had a fundamental right to control how their content was used by others. In other words, “what’s theirs is theirs.” Yet, this belief was most often linked to uses of text (books and articles) for schoolwork. When they spoke about music downloading, a “free for all” or “free for me” mindset typically dominated.

 

On the whole, youth were often quite conscious of the implications of music downloading or improper use of online textual sources. Yet, their thinking was often (and sometimes exclusively) concerned with the potential negative sanctions they might suffer for a property violation. The moral or ethical dimensions of appropriation practices didn’t surface all that often and, when they did, were often dismissed or downplayed with mantras such as “everybody downloads.”

 

Around the time that I was writing the chapter, internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I knew of him and deeply admired his perspective and courage. His activism was based on an explicit set of beliefs about open access, an ethical argument for free culture. As I pored over the perspectives young people shared with us about piracy and the like, I could see glimmers of Aaron’s beliefs here and there. Some teens and young adults pointed to the outrageous profits reaped by major record labels and the unfairly high costs that prevent low-income people from access to cultural goods. However, for the most part, youths’ thinking about these issues was deeply self-focused (“I don’t want to spend a dollar per song on iTunes”) and quite blind to the moral and ethical issues.

 

And, as with privacy issues, adult messages about property appeared to do little to encourage greater sensitivity to ethical considerations. According to youth, teachers tend to emphasize sanctions (a failing grade) for improper citation of sources over exploring the ethical rationale underpinning attribution. And none of the youth we talked with reported conversations with adults about the ethical dimensions of piracy or of unfair intellectual property restrictions.


You end the book talking about “conscientious connectivity.” How are you defining this term and what are some of the steps you are advocating towards achieving it?

 

I see conscientious connectivity as a disposition towards online life that is mindful or attentive to the kinds of moral and ethical issues I discuss throughout the book. In keeping with the work of my Project Zero colleagues on thinking dispositions, I talk about skills, sensitivity, and inclination as essential components of conscientious dispositions.

 

To be more specific, engaging digital ethical issues requires specific thinking skills. For example, the skill of complex perspective-taking – considering the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and audiences – is arguably important to engage as one considers whether or not to post on YouTube a video of one’s classmates engaged in a fight in the locker room, or engaged in a heated discussion of political issues.

 

Having the skills to consider these issues thoroughly is important, but before one can do so, one has to be sensitive to the potential for moral or ethical concerns. So conscientious mindsets are also based on sensitivity – being alert to potential adverse (and positive) implications for others that might follow in the wake of a tweet, Instagram photo, or YouTube video. Cultivating ethical sensitivity can help correct the kinds of ethical blind spots about online privacy, property, and participation that are my concern. But I’m also concerned with disconnects – attitudes that reflect a disinclination to engage moral and ethical themes. Therefore, conscientious connectivity also involves an inclination to wrestle with dilemmas, to fully reflect on and consider competing interests and implications that may flow from an online choice.

 

As noted, our educational materials co-developed with your team and with Common Sense Media have been purposively designed to support the development of ethical thinking skills, sensitivity, and an inclination to engage digital dilemmas.

 

Ultimately, though, conscientious connectivity is most powerful when it inspires socially positive online acts rather than simply preventing harmful behavior. So I also talk about the importance of cultivating a greater sense of agency in young people, supporting them to participate in active ways to create counter-narratives to the more troubling modes of discourse they may see on social media and in other online spaces. A powerful first step towards supporting ethical agency is calling attention to the exemplary ways in which some young people have leveraged digital and social media. In closing the book, I write about Samantha Stendal, a college student who was incensed and inspired to act after hearing details emerging from the Steubenville rape case. Beyond the rape itself, perpetrators and bystanders had circulated photos and video of the assault, including a 12½-minute YouTube video featuring onlookers joking about it. Stendal created a short and pointed video called, A Needed Response, that is a powerful counter-narrative to the attitudes expressed by those involved in the assault. To date, the video has over 9 million hits on YouTube.

 

Your more recent research has shifted towards a focus on youth and participatory politics. Here, again, you are developing a mixed picture of what is working and what isn’t working in the civic lives of American young people. Can you share some early findings from this research?

 

Your characterization of what we’re finding as a “mixed picture” is just right, I think. In our interviews with civically active youth, we’ve seen some truly impressive ways in which they are leveraging digital and social media in support of issues like AIDS awareness, youth violence, and marriage equality. The examples that are emerging from our work – and especially yours – have great potential to inspire other youth to participate in public life in new ways.

 

At the same time, we’ve been concerned about a set of findings that suggest that young activists are increasingly cautious about using digital means to engage in political and civic ways. Emily Weinstein, a terrific doctoral student on our research team, recently published a paper that describes how civic youth in our study managed the opportunities for civic voice afforded by social media in different ways. Most youth shared their civic and political ideas across social media platforms, while some differentiated by platform, holding back from talking about civic issues in some spaces while expressing in others. But some youth bounded their civic voices entirely online – that is, while they were actively involved in civic and political life offline, they purposively sought to keep evidence of their activities off the internet.

 

The reasons why some youth decided to bound the civic voice online varied. What was most worrying to us were the cases where youth reportedly held back because of concerns about uninterested or hostile audiences. To our minds, this suggests a need for supports to help youth manage uncivil discourse rather than simply opting out of online expression about public issues. As part of the Educating for Participatory Politics action group, we are collaborating with Facing History and Ourselves to develop educational supports to call attention to the great potentials of digital media for civic engagement. Supporting strategies for productive and meaningful discourse online is an important concern in this work.

 

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University.