Since the start, I’ve taken issue with the “digital immigrants/digital natives” divide. From one angle, that division puts me and everyone I share my digital life with on the digital immigrants side, in spite of our very rich online lives. From another, it suggests that the undergraduate students I spend my days assisting are somehow “wired differently” than me, and are way more adept at technology than me. This just isn’t my experience in any way. I think it denigrates the amazing work of older net citizens and puts teens in a box in which they do not identify in any way shape or form. The generational argument just falls flat to me.
Listening to Don Tapscott’s recent Big Ideas lecture the other day gave me a new insight on the matter. Like all who advocate the idea of a digital generational shift, Tapscott was inspired by watching his kids. They’re geniuses! No wait, all their friends are geniuses too! This is the beginning of the problem; anecdotes are great, but they bias you in a particular way. In Tapscott’s world, it’s the kids who are living the digital life, not his peers. Therefore, it must be generational. There is nothing in his evidence that proves this; in fact, even the brain chemistry evidence he cites doesn’t prove it. Different behaviours, different activities can change brain chemistry; that’s not news. That’s the real story, not generations.
Different behaviours and activities can be more popular with certain age groups than others, which makes this “digital native” thing an issue of correlation, not causation. However: do we have evidence that more teenagers are interested in the digital life than any other generation? Gen X is small compared to the “millenials”, correct? In 1994 Wired predicted that by the year 2000 the average age of internet users would be 15. Then I wonder why, in 2008, the average age of internet users in the UK is 37.9? As of right now, NiteCo lists the average age of internet users as 28.3421. I’m not suggesting that teens aren’t interested in the internet and in digital life; it’s just that it’s not primarily or only them. It’s not a factor of their age. This isn’t even like Elvis, when the kids loved the rock’n’roll and the adults hated it; it’s nowhere near that clear cut.
I think it’s more like a cultural meme. It’s a series of metaphors, of truths we accept. In the digital culture meme, there can be something called “digital culture”. An online community is a real community. You can have online friends, and they’re real friends. You can “talk” online using only text, and have it mean as much to you as a face to face conversation. You’re intrigued by new internet apps, not scared. You have a tendency to play with things digital and see how they fit into, or alter, your digital life. The idea of wanting to be connected pretty much all the time is not that strange or dangerous; “thinking with the internet” is a concept that makes sense to you. These ideas, among many others, make up the digital culture meme, and the people who subscribe to it are the digital natives. It has nothing to do with when and where you were born.
Maybe it’s like Stravinsky. When they first performed Rite of Spring, people rioted. It was so foreign, no one knew how to respond to it. But eventually, the meme of radical music spread; eventually, the song made it into Disney’s Fantasia. It wasn’t worthy of a riot anymore; it wasn’t different anymore. It wasn’t going to destroy society. It was just a new way of thinking. Did that start with a generation? Or just a group of classical music lovers? We didn’t consider that a generational shift, but perhaps it was. New ways of thinking, new ways to intrepret culture.
Or are we trapped by old ideas about genetics? Old ideas, the ideas that filter through into society as truths. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks; real change comes from the youth. Is that so? For people like Don Tapscott, is thinking of the digital culture meme as a generational change a way to excuse himself, and his peers, and others who fear the meme, from participating? Is it reassuring to think of digital culture as something akin to built-into-your-genes and unfixable? They are just built differently, they’re brains are different; don’t feel challenged by these new ways of thinking and communicating. Don’t feel threatened. It’s not your fault that you don’t understand or won’t participate. That’s what’s right given your brain wiring. This is only a game for the young. This is the way THEY think, because they were born in this world. But no, it’s not like genetics in that sense; it’s more like epigenetics. Your brain is flexible, your genes are flexible depending on the choices you make, the options you have, and the circumstances you’re in. Accepting the meme and living digital can change your brain. It has nothing to do with your age.