Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I, Digital Native

I’ve been reading Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Wikipedia defines a digital native as “a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts.” Since I currently work with 16 to 17 year-olds and will soon be working with university students, I thought it was important for me to understanding this generation of digital natives so that I’m able to provide a better library service.

And so I was surprised to discover that Palfrey and Gasser’s definition of ‘digital natives’ describes me:
They were all born after 1980... They read blogs rather than newspapers. They often meet each other online before they meet in person. They probably don’t even know what a library card looks like, much less have one; and if they do, they’ve probably never used it. They get their music online – often for free, illegally – rather than buying it in record stores. They’re more likely to send an instant message (IM) than to pick up the telephone to arrange a date later in the afternoon... And they’re connected to one another by a common culture. Major aspects of their lives – social interactions, friendships, civic activities – are mediated by digital technologies.
(Apart from the library card comment and [LEGAL DISCLAIMER] the illegal music comment.)

A digital native. Probably with disgusting sticky fingers.
I had never considered myself to be a digital native so reading this was like discovering that an anthropology text is about my subculture. The term ‘digital native’ seems to imply an innate grasp of technology: using mobile phones in the playground and taking ‘coding for kids’ classes. I remember learning to use technology: teaching myself to use a mouse; my first experience using the Internet; teaching myself HTML. Sometimes I still get the feeling that devices like the Kindle are astoundingly futuristic. The point being that I am fully aware of all the technology I use and that, unlike my imagined digital native, I don’t feel blasé about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that technology does have a different role in my life compared to, say, my parents. The different ways we approach technology, for example. When my parents don’t have a clear step-by-step procedure for doing something on the computer or on a device, they can’t do it: if they don’t know how to reset the clock on their mobile phone, then they just don’t know. Whereas I will look through the menus, try out likely options (Settings, Options, etc.), and figure out how to do it. I’m not worried that fiddling with technology and trying things out will break it – sometimes it feels as though my parents and older family members do. This seems to indicate different approaches to the use of technology and different levels of understanding.

There are also the different ways that technology has integrated itself into our lives. It’s common – particularly among newspaper opinion columnists – to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and the ‘online world’. I see no distinction: the ‘online me’ is me albeit with some of the restrictions of online communication.

Another quote from Born Digital:
...Digital Natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline. Instead of thinking of their digital identity and their real-space identity as separate things, they just have an identity (with representations in two, or three, or more different spaces)... For these young people, new digital technologies – computers, cell phones, Sidekicks – are primary mediators of human-to-human connections.
I spend a lot of time online. The Web is my primary source of information about the world. Since my friends from school and university are scattered across the country, I communicate with people primarily using email and social media. I would rather chat with someone using Facebook or Chatzy than talk to them on the telephone. I have friends – even close friends – who I have never met in person. Voices for the Library is a group made up of people who primarily communicate with one another online and meet in person very rarely.

So I suppose I am a digital native. My life is integrated with and augmented by technology. Things 8, 9, and 13 for CPD23 are all about web-based tools and technologies that are used to organise oneself and make life easier. These kinds of tools – Google Calendar, Google Docs, wikis – and certain pieces of hardware – laptop, USB stick, Kindle, iPod – are integrated into my life in such a way as to make them crucial to my normal operation. Google Calendar augments my memory; my Kindle augments my capacity for communication: these pieces of technology are integrated with me and make me a more effective human being.

Transhumanism argues that the next step in human development will be merging with technology to make humans fitter, smarter, and better. To some degree, this is already happening with digital natives: as humans whose lives are so integrated with technology that they are recognisably distinct from generations before them, there is a strong case that this is the first generation of posthumans. Although I don’t agree with Ray Kurzweil’s quasi-religious belief in The Singularity, I do agree that the human body is imperfect and that augmenting humans using technology can be of great benefit: “Our version 1.0 biological bodies are likewise frail and subject to a myriad of failure modes, not to mention the cumbersome maintenance rituals they require. While human intelligence is sometimes capable of soaring in its creativity and expressiveness, much human thought is derivative, petty, and circumscribed.”

Some argue that digital natives suffer from their attachment to technology. In the wake of horrendous riots across England last week, the Government has discussed the negative influence of social media technology and its potential for organising riots and disorder. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses the negative impact of the Internet on human neurology (in brief: dwindling ability to concentrate; a generation of ADHD sufferers). Rather than interpreting this change as a kid of decay, the authors of Born Digital see it as an adaptive change necessitated by a changing information environment. Digital natives are simply adapting to survive in an environment of ‘information overload’. For example: in a world where the information can be found with a couple of keystrokes, what non-trivial benefit is there to memorising the kings and queens of England? Einstein said: “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. ...The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”

We’re likely to see even more changes in the way that people, particularly young people, use technology. Rather than restricting the technology, we have to learn to adapt like digital natives have and will continue to do. 

EDIT: A few hours after posting this, Deb Elzie tweeted about this research by the Open University which suggests that there are no 'digital natives' and that there is no clear break between the technology usage of different generations. In which case, anyone has the potential ability to use technology in the intuitive way that is the hallmark of the digital native: rather than being a matter of age, it's a matter of experience. So-called 'digital nativity' lies in shared characteristics and technological affinity rather than arbitrary age limits: there's no reason why people born before 1980 shouldn't be able to use technology as well as people born after. There is another interesting piece on digital natives here by Simeon Oriko.


Sarah Reid said...

Really interesting post. I also never thought I was a digital native until I read about the subject!

The implications in terms of teaching/learning are really interesting - those who aren't digital natives cannot become so, but most teachers currently do not fall into this category so they are always playing catch-up.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Sarah. I haven't reached it yet but apparently Born Digital goes on to discuss the difficulties for Digital Immigrants (teachers, librarians, parents) teaching Digital Natives. It's a challenge but the authors suggest that it's better for these people to teach Natives literacy and responsibility than for government and the law to enforce changes on the digital world.

Dumpling said...

I appear to have Gone Native too...also, apart from the music bit (because I'm not bothered about music, and prefer to own a physical thing if I've paid for it, so I like buying CDs).

It's definitely true about the different generations using things differently - my parents will not do anything with technology unless specifically told, while I'm more likely to poke about in stuff...but I still have the lingering concern that I'm going to break something. This may be put down to the fact that I learned about computers on a BBC Micro, and one wrong keystroke there blew hours of work. This is also probably true for my Dad - perhaps it's just that they got so used to things breaking if they went outside the allowed uses, they're conditioned not to try now.

Helen Murphy said...

This is a fascinating post. I like how you bring your academic interests to bear on your cpd23 thoughts, and I knew nothing about transhumanism, so I've learned something!

Have you ever read any Jacques Ellul? His entire corpus is worth a read in any case, but your post reminded me of his 'The Technological Society'. It's many years since I read it, so forgive me if I'm a bit shaky on this stuff! He would, I think have been in slight opposition to you, but you talk about the same issues. For example, you say that technology integrates with you and therefore makes you more efficient. Ellul (I'm COMPLETELY paraphrasing and doing him an utter injustice) would probably agree about the efficiency, but he would possibly suggest that it is humans that are integrating with technology because of the elevation of efficiency and rationality to sacredness.

Thanks again for the post--you've raised some lovely old memories of technology and ethics classes from my university days a thousand years ago.

Simon Barron said...

Dumpling: it comes down, as you say, to being more likely to poke around in stuff. If I've got something new and expensive, I'll be cautious with it for a while but I'll always mess about and push the limits of my knowledge of a new technology.

Helen: Thanks! It actually started as a pure CPD23 post but got away from me so now there's only one little CPD23 sentence left. Whoops.

I'll have to look up Ellul: sounds interesting.

Richard Hawkins said...

This is a great blog post.

There's a good review of The Shallows in the London Review of Books archive here by the way:

I have to admit I haven't read the Shallows myself but I did read the above review.


Simon Barron said...

Thanks Richard. I haven't read The Shallows either but I've read the Atlantic article on which it is based: Is Google Making Us Stupid

Well worth reading.

Ian said...

Great post Simon (as usual). Funnily enough, as I was reading through it I was thinking much along the same lines as the Open University study that you linked to in your update. Rather handy as it saved me having to do my own research before commenting :)

It also got me thinking about my parents. Now, my dad is not really up to speed on computers, but he is quite confident with the kind of technology he grew up around (TVs, video/DVD, stereos etc), certainly in comparison to my grandparents. I think we just learn to use the technology around us. Regardless of age, some people do adopt new technologies, some people don't, but I think that has been the same for technology throughout the ages. It is far more complex than saying all digitial natives are born after 1980 (but aren't all things more complex than saying 'they were all'?).

I'm not sure this comment makes a lot of sense. Perhaps I should have thought it through beforehand. Alternatively, ignore my comment and read the OU research - that's where I am coming from. :)

Helen said...

I think digital natives is quite a complex issue - I don't agree that people who aren't digital natives can't become one. It can't just be decided by your age. I also think that there is a tendency amongst people who think that they are digital natives to not fully understand the digital technologies they use.

Working in a public library, you often see people using facebook in completely inappropriate ways and they don't understand the implications of it, privacy settings, etc. When something goes wrong, they are not always willing to investigate it but simply blame the computer or website. I have seen this amongst young people who use facebook everyday, have blackberries and take the internet as a right, not a privilege, but I would still not class them as digital natives. I am sure that you will experience this in HE too, so called 'digital natives' not having the right information literacy skills to find the information they need and an over-reliance on Google & Wikipedia. I was certainly like that when I first started Uni. I think that information literacy is a big key to becoming a real digital native otherwise you end up taking everything in the digital world as being real & true, which it isn't.

I remember seeing a tweet going round yesterday that about 35% of people didn't realise the first few links on google in the blue box are sponsored links and thought how stupid of them, but I guess many of them aren't digital natives!

woodsiegirl said...

Very interesting. I do think that the whole digital natives thing is far more complicated than just age. For example, based on your criteria above I definitely class myself as a digital native (also apart from the library card and illegal downloads thing! I do download music rather than buy a CD - I actually can't remember when I last bought a CD - but I do pay for it!). However, my twin sister is definitely not a digital native. She's very suspicious of the whole social networking thing (she was horrified to learn that I'd actually met up with "people from the internet"!); she uses Facebook grudgingly, but only to keep up with people she already knows; she doesn't read blogs or really understand why I do; and she'll always phone rather than email or IM someone. She is slightly more confident with technology than, say, our dad is, but she wouldn't play around with the settings or work out how to use a new device by herself the way I would.

Sorry for the slightly rambling comment - I just find it interesting that despite being exactly the same age and having had the same upbringing, we have such different attitudes to the digital world! That's why I've never accepted the definition of a digital native as simply "someone born after 1980", and it's very interesting to hear you explore the wider definition of the term. I love the idea of transhumanism as well - not one I've come across before.

twi said...

I learnt about transhumanism from playing this:

(I was born long before 1980 yet live in a digital world most of the time these days, but played that game several times just sitting round a table with friends)

Carl said...

Susan Greenfield also has some interesting ideas about the effect of digital technology on the human mind in ID: the quest for meaning in the 21st Century. She thinks that 'screen technologies' will stunt the development of intellectual skills e.g "Search engines have the potential to free up more of us for asking questions and 'thinking'. But how will we think? What will we think about? What questions might we ask?"

libchris said...

Definitely think it is not necessarily an age thing...I was born way before 1980 (by a couple of decades!), but happily play around with technology, and will always fiddle with things to find out how they work. Also most of my communications are online rather than phone etc.
Suppose it helps that my hubby is technologically adept (it is his line of work), and has always had a fascination with new technologies, so it has always been natural in our household.

Nicola Franklin said...

Agree with libchris - I was also born way before 1980 and happily fiddle with stuff, blog, tweet, etc. In fact, I met my now-husband online... about 6 years ago (no, not on a dating site, in an MMORG online game!). I think its much more an attitude of mind than related to age per se.

Debby said...

Hi, I really enjoyed this too. I'm just starting second part of Alone Together (Sherry Turkle); she's researched widely the attitudes of d. natives / v non. Maybe it's a question of attitude; I too am older. Whereas I USE all the technology & social networking, I think online r.ships are absolutely inferior to 'in person' ones. Do not come anywhere near them, never, ever. Nothing like them.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks everyone for such insightful comments. It certainly provides a lot to think about.

It seems as though the consensus is that the concept of a 'digital native' is too simplistic. The ability to use technology is not something that is innate in people in a certain age range: rather, more or less anyone can learn to use technology and grasp its concepts if they choose to.

It seems particularly arbitary to restrict a 'native' to someone born after 1980. Although it's true that such people will have had more opportunities to use technology, it doesn't mean that other people haven't also had opportunities. It also doesn't mean that opportunity necessarily equates to affinity.

As usual, everything is more complicated than it seems.

Anonymous said...

I was born in 1991 and I don't see myself as a digital native. I'm a digital immigrant. I'm more of an analog native. I never had anything digital or exposed to anything digital until age 14. To me a digital native is someone born after 1992 not 1980.