I first heard the phrase “digital natives” at the New Media Consortium’s 2007 Regional Conference. I enjoyed the conference a great deal and found the majority of the sessions enlightening. However, there was one session in particular which fell way, way below the mark. I can sum up this presentation as follows:
Kids today sure do like that new digital technology. They’re Digital Natives from Digiland! All us old folks can ever hope to do is be Immigrants to Digiland. Even so, we’d best savvy up right quick to this here new-fangled stuff, or we will fail to engage these Digital Natives in the educational process.
I wish I could say I’m going over the top here, but that was pretty much the gist and tenor of the presentation. I was frankly disgusted, even outraged.
Since then, I’ve started to notice the phrase “digital natives” cropping up with greater frequency, and I think that’s a shame. It strikes me as a worthless, indeed a disabling notion.
So I was really turned on by Siva Vaidhyanathan’s article in the recent Chronicle, “Generation Myth.” In my humble opinion, Siva knocks it out of the park. He argues that the the notion of “digital natives” is pure bunk, but he goes farther than that and argues that generations themselves are bunk. I absolutely agree with the first argument, and I’m inclined to think he’s right about the second, but in any case it’s fascinating and provocative stuff. I’d say it’s must reading for anyone interested in technology, education or generational politics.
Siva’s article caught the attention of the good folks at Digital Campus, who devote the better part of their current episode to a discussion of digital natives. Although they take Siva’s article as a jumping-off point, and don’t really rebut it, I guess they didn’t buy it either, because they continued to refer to “digital natives” throughout their discussion.
I cringed each time.
Two of the participants offered a metaphor which I found quite helpful. Consider the automobile. Consider the generation that grew up with the automobile, and subsequent generations. Chances are these folks know how to drive. They may be able to fix a flat or change a spark plug. But most of them do not understand the intimate workings of the internal combustion engine. For most problems, they will need to defer to an expert, a mechanic. This is true even for professional drivers, people who make their living behind the wheel of a car. And most folks certainly wouldn’t know how to design a car, much less build one from scratch.
I like this metaphor because it captures some nuances that seem to be glossed over when people speak of “digital natives.” Sure, younger people probably have a greater facility with some of the easiest digital technology. But that’s really a superficial distinction. I suspect that the percentage of people with true skillz and deep knowledge of digital stuff increases as the age of the sample decreases. But such experts are still a distinct minority. In my experience, most people are still somewhat befuddled by technology whatever their age.
The term “digital natives” is harmful because it suggests a level of competence that simply isn’t there for the vast majority. It suggests a monolithic, mythic quality to the up and coming young folks. It also carries the connotation, as noted by the misguided speaker at the NMC conference, that older folks are “non-natives” who can never expect to gain the level of competency and comfort with digital technology to which young people are supposedly born. These notions do not serve us well.
I suppose I might be sensitized to this because I work at a a “majority minority” institution — a place where the majority of students are from racial and ethnic minority groups. Our student body is also largely economically disadvantaged. I think it’s especially misleading to speak of “digital natives” in this context. Siva cites Eszter Hargittai:
[W]omen, students of Hispanic origin, African-American students, and students whose parents have lower levels of education tend to have less mastery of the inner workings of digital technology than other groups do.
But regardless of the race or gender or socio-economic standing of the group in question, I don’t find the term “digital natives” helpful at all.