Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

From the Times Online: The next step in brain evolution. Let me summarize: young people, who have lived with the internet all their lives, are digital natives. If you’re over 30 and didn’t grow up with text messaging, MSN, and Google, you’re a digital immigrant.

This particular bit of rhetoric really gets to me, and I’ll tell you why. It’s a broad-swath excuse, apparently designed to make those over 30 feel safer about their own current knowledge base. As long as new communication technologies are something your brain is or is not hardwired to comprehend based on your experiences while a preteen/teenager, the rest of us, who don’t understand this new-fangled email thing (or whatever it is people don’t want to understand) can relax and not feel behind the times or missing out. We’re just different, that’s all. This line of reasoning has the added effect of underscoring that which we feel is already true; each generation is a radically new product, and history is based on a set of processes built upon the last that lead to greater and greater progress. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. We can happily let the kids do their internet stuff, knowing that our own smug little land of postal service and telephones is the giant they’re standing on.

Because we all stop learning at age 20, right? And there should be no more pressure to learn after that. Is that really the world we want to live in? That’s like asking us to stop reading after age 20. All the greatest books have already been written by then anyway, right?

I object strenuously to the suggestion that those 20 and under are somehow more “digitally native” than those of us who came to the internet/computers later in life. The difference is not in this early experience; the difference is in whether or not you’re prepared to let something new change your life. It’s about a willingness to learn and an openness to new ideas. The only relationship between that willingness and age is that we expect people under 20 to be open to learning That’s not a “new generation” or strange new brain chemistry. That’s a decision we’re making about how we want to live our lives, and where (and when) we opt to limit ourselves.

From the article:

Emily Feld is a native of a new planet. While the 20-year-old university student may appear to live in London, she actually spends much of her time in another galaxy — out there, in the digital universe of websites, e-mails, text messages and mobile phone calls. The behaviour of Feld and her generation, say experts, is being shaped by digital technology as never before, taking her boldly where no generation has gone before. It may even be the next step in evolution, transforming brains and the way we think.

As long as it’s chemical, it means we don’t need to feel threatened by this personally. It’s not a choice, doesn’t this sound familiar? It’s biology. Further:

“First thing every morning I wake up, check my mobile for messages, have a cup of tea and then check my e-mails,” says Feld. “I may have a look at, a website connecting university students, to see if someone has written anything on my ‘wall’. I’m connected to about 80 people on that. It’s really addictive. I’ll then browse around the internet, and if a news article on Yahoo catches my eye, I’ll read it. And I may upload my iTunes page to see if any of my subscribed podcasts have come in.

“upload” is most defnitely the wrong word to use here. I presume she’s thinking “load” the podcast category inside itunes, or perhaps “download” the latest podcasts through itunes (which doesn’t use the term “download” at all, but rather the more logical “get”), and perhaps she wants to sync her ipod so that the newly downloaded podcasts are transferred to her ipod. But she’s not “uploading” anything.

Sure, Emily listens to podcasts, but is she a digital native? Does she speak the language, know how stuff works, can she easily move between one digital landscape and another? With that language, I’m going to have to say no. Using something doesn’t mean you understand how it works, and it doesn’t mean you can take that use to the next level and apply the knowledge gained from the use to another circumstance.

That’s what makes Emily a “digital native”, one who has never known a world without instant communication. Her mother, Christine, on the other hand, is a “digital immigrant”, still coming to terms with a culture ruled by the ring of a mobile and the zip of e-mails.

Okay, so that’s Emily, age 20. Enter Rochelle, age 31 (32 in a couple of weeks, might I add). Unlike Emily, I didn’t touch my first computer until I was 17. I stumbled on the internet when I was 20 and figured it was a toy. I’d say, according to this article, I would be a “digital immigrant”, a person who grew up without the internet, without cell phones, without text messaging and emails and IM.

First thing in the morning when I wake up, I open up my computer, which is constantly connected to the internet because I bought myself a wireless router. I check my personal email, which collects any new comments on my blog, and then I let my widgets check my gmail, which collects comments from my various other journals (at livejournal, Vox, etc. I check my livejournal friends page, leave a few comments, engage in a few conversations about this and that. I see new pictures posted by an American friend of mine who is currently on a cruise to Alaska, I see what’s new with my friend in the Peace Corps in Jamaica. I check my RSS reader to read my friends’ blogs. I check to see if my friend with the very hot new job in San Francisco has broken any new bones lately. I take the pulse of the blogs by those around the world who share my profession. I say hello via IM to my friend in Australia, who is just settling down for the night. We complain about the weather (always the direct opposite from each other). I wave hello to my friends in the UK. I have my breakfast with my buddy Jason, who is sitting down to his own breakfast in his condo in downtown Toronto with his lovely wife. We trade links we think are interesting and complain about the ones we think are wrong-headed.

Our conversation this morning:

Jason: hypsterism
Rochelle: yeah, I think so too
Rochelle: am writing an annoyed post about it
Rochelle: we should write a joint post or something
Rochelle: because
Rochelle: how old are you now?
Jason: 44
Jason: and I started using computers at 27
Rochelle: yeah, they’re suggesting that only 20 year olds are “digital natives”
Rochelle: and I dare any of these kids to be more digital native than you and I
Rochelle: I’m posting about that
Jason: 20 yr olds are digital naives, not natives
Rochelle: EXACTLY
Jason: The digital naives have lost all sense of critical distance
Jason: and are peons to the marketed moment
Rochelle: I think this kind of thinking is an excuse
Rochelle: for people over 30 to not bother with this stuff
Rochelle: because it’s a generational thing
Jason: unable to function outside the user manual
Jason: and the marketing campaign
Rochelle: letting adults off the hook

On the way to work, I may text my friends for the entertainment value. If I’m on the train on the way into Toronto, I definitely text for the entertainment value. Since I don’t want to spend the money to browse the internet from my cell, I text a friend near a computer to google something for me if I need to know something. (For instance: this past weekend I texted Jason to ask him to find out why the trains weren’t moving out of Union station in Toronto; the bus driver wasn’t sure, but I told him it was a freight train derailment, since that’s what Jason found out through Google News.) I was on Toronto island during the final world cup game; I texted a friend in Syracuse to ask her who won (since I know she’s a fan). I got an answer in about a minute and a half.

Being a “digital native” is not about your early experiences. It’s not about an aptitude or a particular brain chemistry. It’s about being willing to explore, to be changed by technology, and a desire to be connected in this way, beyond the physical space we inhabit. It’s a choice; no one has to do it. But we’re not limited because we’re not 20.

0 thoughts on “Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

  1. I suppose at 25, I might be on the line between “native” and “immigrant”… but who knows. It does always bug me that the OMG LOLZ teen brigade seems to be the group that is described having its finger on the pulse of technology.

    It’s a pointless distinction. If you’re using technology effectively and intelligently (or vice versa), it doesn’t matter if you’re 17 or 77.

  2. Excellent Post! I also get frustrated when folks say, “I just can’t get it because I’m not of that generation.” On the other hand, digital immigrants can sometimes try a little too hard to be hip to what the kids are using. I believe that it is important for people of all ages to learn and adapt to new technologies. However, using a technology simply because all the kids are using it is not always the best motivation for learning something new. If the technology had practical applications for the individual, then by all means he/she should not hesitate in learning and adopting it.

    Having said that, I believe that as librarians, we should all attempt to be hip to what the kids are using. By using what the “natives” are using, we can seek to understand their learning styles and information seeking behaviors. We can then apply this knowledge when creating services and resources, and hopefully we can keep the natives from being restless. 😉

    Rochelle: Quite honestly, I find that the kids are a few years behind me on these things. So I like to tell the kids what the next hip thing is. 😉

  3. The thing that keeps getting left out of these stories is who created this digital universe that these kids live in?

    I agree that many kids are closer to digital naifs than digital natives– which is why people who work with them need to make sure they don’t blindly accept the stereotype and fail to give the kids the guidance they need.

    I think the knowledge arc is like this: Gen X (but we’re so small that no one notices when we notice something), Kids, the press, the rest of the world. (That’s mostly tongue in cheek, BTW.)

    Rochelle: I utterly and completely agree with you. Perhaps this is why my back goes up when I read these sorts of articles; we’re not doing students any favours by presuming that they’re going to instruct us about cutting edge technology. I’ve met tons of students who approach a computer with nervous caution, and they’re always apologetic about it. As if they’re meant to be experts just because they were born in the late 80s. It’s a vile stereotype.

  4. Hey – I’m 60 and I use blogs and wikis, have created and uploaded (right usage, eh?) my own Web site, I use RSS to follow lots of edutech blogs, and I introduce my often digital naif (love the term) students to wikis, blogs and podcasts, not by teaching the social Web, but by using it as part of my course.

    Thanks Rochelle; I enjoyed your rant.

  5. YES and yes and yes. I’ve lived a significant percentage of my life online since I found the internet (about when you did, and you and I are the same age.) I use it for work, play, commerce, communication, and a social life.

    Being internet-fluent is NOT about being a native or an immigrant. It’s like the ridiculous immigration rhetoric going around recently over that bill – are immigrants lazy, ignorant, uncultured, and illiterate? Well, sure, some of them. But not most or all, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that native=hardworking/smart/fluent/savvy and immigrant=incompetent/ignorant/illiterate/stupid.

    I see plenty of teens on the web, and they’re far less savvy about their internet usage than I am. I have privacy, and a clean Google trail, and I’m not hanging my personal information, Issues, or idiocies out for public consumption and record. I use my electronic tools in effective and efficient ways that interface optimally with the rest of my life. I conduct my social interactions online with maturity and know how to build electronic social and professional networks, rather than transporting my RL networks online so we can teenyspeak at one another. I may be an immigrant, but if people like me are immigrants, then immigrants are what make the vast and amorphous country of the Internet great.

  6. The most telling line is in the second quote: “I’m connected to about 80 people … it’s really addictive.” Just because something is new technology doesn’t mean it’s not like McDonald’s.

    I think the generational differences with new technology are often a matter of caution. Younger people have less, older people more. Kids try anything and don’t fear breaking something. Many older people lived before the age of disposable technology.

    Sometimes, the network experiences of younger generations strikes me as something fundamentally different, wherein they’re connected all the time through cell phones and text messaging, but then I remember that it’s fundamentally the same as teenagers forty years ago being on the phone for hours on end or waiting by the phone when they’re not.

    You were suitably incensed, Rochelle. Thanks.

  7. All of what you said, plus there’s also the assumption that everyone under thirty has the same degree of access to the same technology, the same level of education, the same needs, etc. I’ve shared a house with a 19-year-old retail sales assistant who didn’t realise an iPod required a computer. I’ve given IT lessons to 18-year-olds who left school at fifteen and have barely used a computer in their lives. And I’ve worked with fifty, sixty, seventy year-olds who taught me a thing or two.

    As with most generation-based analyses, this article was total rot.

  8. Heh. I think you misunderstood that article. It did not say “over 30”. In fact, it did not even mention an age limit. It did mention the ages of 20 and 55. Considering I’m 22 and I got the Internet at around 15, I would say Christine (the woman mentioned in the article who is 55) would be a bit of a “digital immigrant”. I, my self, was a “digital immigrant” at one point or another. I wouldn’t say the “natives” are necessarily more suited to understanding the variety of technology, but its obvious that if you’ve been around something all your life, you probably have a good chance of understanding it a bit more than someone who hadn’t been around it. I don’t believe the article was saying that older generations cannot learn, but that they MUST learn. I have a few grand parents who have learned. One of those is 80+ years. They don’t make excuses and I don’t believe this article is making excuses for any person of any age.

    Rochelle: I don’t think I misunderstood it at all, and I stand by what I said. However, I was too arbitrary with the “over 30” line…I’m at a conference right now on this very topic, full of people who study mobile learning and technology in education, and the world on the street here is that you’re a “digital immigrant” if you’re over the age of 23. I guess 30 was a bit optimistic.

  9. I am in the process of editing an article on this subject for an annual report I have to write and am doing some research on the topic for myself. I must say, I found your perspectives insightful and refreshing. As a 48 y/o mother of an 18 and 21 y/o (who, BTW, is studying computer engineering) I’ve received my share of digital jabs from the two of them because they happened to learn something before I did. I agree that we have a choice to learn knew technologies as they arise, and want to be sure and put this view in the article I’m editing to encourage my 30 something (23? really?) co-workers that they don’t have to eat the dust of their children and grandchildren. In other articles I’ve read, the writers strongly suggest that the brains of “digital natives” have physically changed, and although they admit to having no proof of this, they still strongly promote it in such a way as to make it seem as though it must be true. For me, it’s true that I simply do not care about some of the new technologies (text messaging doesn’t interest me) but that doesn’t stop me from pursuing where my interests do lie – which is in graphic and web design – areas in which I could run circles around both of my “digitally native” kids. Thanks again for your insights and perspectives on the matter.

  10. For my own understanding, as a teacher of the English language, I look at “natives” just as those who were born immersed in the culture, and “immigrants” as people who moved into a culture later on. Looking at the English language, there are plenty of “natives” — Brits and N. Americans are natives, but plenty of them speak rubbish English that lets them operate in life on a basic level. Same deal with “digital natives” — I believe it does refer to those who were born in a digitised world, yet that does/should not necessarily imply they are any good at it.
    This just means that the terms “native” and “immigrant” are useless if people use it to describe level of expertise (just as those native English speakers who should never be able to get a job teaching their own language).

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