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 â€” 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:
â€œFirst thing every morning I wake up, check my mobile for messages, have a cup of tea and then check my e-mails,â€ says Feld. â€œI may have a look at Facebook.com, a website connecting university students, to see if someone has written anything on my â€˜wallâ€™. Iâ€™m connected to about 80 people on that. Itâ€™s really addictive. Iâ€™ll then browse around the internet, and if a news article on Yahoo catches my eye, Iâ€™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.
Thatâ€™s what makes Emily a â€œdigital nativeâ€, one who has never known a world without instant communication. Her mother, Christine, on the other hand, is a â€œdigital immigrantâ€, 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:
Rochelle: yeah, I think so too
Rochelle: am writing an annoyed post about it
Rochelle: we should write a joint post or something
Rochelle: how old are you now?
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
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.