A Digital Native Looks at “Digital Natives”

Christina and I have been talking recently about bringing the internet broadly into the academic discourse. There’s been some ideas flying around putting together a colloquia next year. Some thoughts…

The prompt of Internet studies is great. Broadly speaking, the question is: how has the internet manifested itself as a cultural phenomenon, both as a dependent variable (that is, as used by existing communities) and an independent variable (in shaping new ones). Perhaps even more awesome are the questions that develop from that initial inquiry. How do people form new identities? What’s the digital self all about? (Cooper’s “Alter Ego” being the most recent cool work in that vein)

But the primary issue is that much of the work is still being done through an old (and I think somewhat obsolete) frame, perhaps the most problematic being in the work of Marc Prensky and the Digital Natives literature. In his work, Prensky divides people into “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” That is, people who grew up with technology/internet, and those who learned it. Now, the mere observation that things are different culturally between “the pre-digital age” and now isn’t the problem, it’s how the divide is approached analytically.

 There’s three issues with that I see —

1) The division is made along the dimension of age — It’s not evident to me that age is the salient division between “immigrants” and “natives.” As the existence of much, much older people deeply immersed in the study of the internet demonstrate, what separates the “natives” from the “immgrants” are patterns of use. While “our parents” as an abstract group might be more technically inept, it’s not really helpful to block the age group as a whole into the “immigrant” category. I’m sure a David Weinberger or a Doc Searls is way more of digital native than I’ll ever be.

2) It overstates the division between the groups — Prensky’s work tends to argue that the rise of the “digital natives” renders previous educational systems obsolete. But, it’s unclear to me if the new patterns of behavior are entirely unique, or merely translations (or logical progressions) of old patterns of behavior. It seems unhelpful to assert on face a deep, dramatic divide between immigrants and natives when the really interesting thing (in my opinion) are the similarities between the two. It’s not like digital natives are suddenly devoid of the motivations that drove earlier generations.

3) It refers to a state of the world that is already gone. This is circumstantial and mean spirited, but check out his website. What game is that on the screen? It’s like, something out of the early nineties. (and can we mention the NEC monitor that it’s being displayed on?) Same of his work. Most of the “digital natives” literature treats them as a new and emerging phenomenon. This is manifestly untrue. Any study of internet culture has to recognize that the revolution is already here. We aren’t studying an emerging phenomenon, but one that is already pervasive, established, and evolving. Gen Yers are already entering the workplace in droves, and it’s worth recognizing in the literature that it isn’t something policymakers have to “plan for” so much as “deal with.”

I think there’s alot of value in developing a new term to refer to the “digital natives” that reframes the discussion. Suggestions?

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    […] a web-savvy “digital native”, of course I joined MySpace back in the day when everyone was doing it. And then I didn’t use […]


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