Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cliche watch: "digital native"

In a professional meeting recently, I heard someone lament that she was not a "digital native" and referred to herself as an "immigrant" in digital culture.

Maybe this has some usefulness as a metaphor in education circles. Maybe it has achieved some status because of the current fashion in literary studies for metaphors of cosmopolitanism, immigration, transnationalism, migrations, etc.

Mostly, though, as used in conversation, the "digital native" idea creates a false distinction. It assumes that there is a fundamental inability to understand a technology if you haven't grown up with it, which is an assumption or belief and not a fact. It also assumes that various technologies cannot become naturalized or do not seem natural to those who haven't grown up with them.

The concept of "digital native" seems to come from the touching belief of each generation that its technologies are so transformative, so life-changing, that no one over the age of seven can grasp their full impact except as an outsider. My students might like to say (in their favorite cliche) that this has been true since the dawn of time, but let's just take the twentieth century:

  • 1920s: "These kids today and their automobiles! They don't have to harness up Bessie to the wagon to go into town anymore. They're so mobile! How will we ever understand the ways they think? We are not automobile natives and can never, ever catch up. "
  • 1950s: "Why, this new generation can actually SEE Jack Benny on television instead of just hearing him on the radio! This will totally transform the way we teach. Teachers will become obsolete, since everyone will just listen to a master teacher on television. We are not television natives and can never understand the ways in which their brains are wired." (If you don't think this is accurate, check out an old Life or Time magazine from the era.)
  • 2000s: "These kids today are digital natives, and we, poor sods, are always going to be digital immigrants. They think in completely new ways, and we can never, ever catch up!"

    I don't know why this metaphor annoys me so. To be honest, it's no more annoying than the Boomer/Gen X/Gen Y cliches that lazy magazine writers bring out when they have a big chunk o' space to fill with feel-good or feel-bad anecdotes. ("Boomer Files" in Newsweek, anyone?) When I hear people use "digital native," though, a lot of times they're flapping their hands about how they'll just never get the whole concept of these internet tubes in the ways that the young folks do, which seems to me both (1) lazy and (2) a fundamental evasion of the problem, which is their unwillingness to engage with digital culture.

    Well, guess what? This divide isn't generational. I know 70-year-olds who can reinstall hard drives, reset a computer's BIOS (or whatever it is), and use Photoshop in ways that would put the rest of us to shame and supposed "digital natives" who can't send an attachment.

    So do I think that the digital revolution (to be pretentious about it) has changed the ways in which people, and especially our students, think, read, and access information? Of course it has. But the "digital native" idea? Ultimately, that's a stereotype that, like most of them, tells less about the people being categorized than about those who seek to categorize them.

    [Update 12/5/07: There's a good (and more serious) essay about this, including additional links, at Confessions of an Aca/Fan.]
    [Edited to add: There's also just the slightest possibility that corporations and advertisers have found a way to make a buck by preying on our insecurities and anxieties about teaching "digital natives," just as they've managed to do when selling us mouthwash and deodorant. Nah, that couldn't happen.]
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