Digital Natives

A term heard more and more (at least in the Web 2.o and techno-circuits) is “digital Native.” It’s used to describe the current generation of those “under 25” who have never known a life without the internet, a life without connectivity. Lee Rainie, (Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project) spoke at the Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Symposium, about this generation, and the view (not limited to him) that this somehow makes this generation unique. Cole Camplese summarized Lee’s remarks on his blog So I won’t go over that.

I am intrigued by this phrase, the “digital Native.” It implies somehow that these youth are themselves involved with the “digital” nature of things. Honestly, I don’t think people realize what it means anymore to be “digital.” For instance, one blog author recently wrote:

“I killed the CD collection years ago and have been living in a digital music ecosystem since my iPods’ storage capacities started to match my old analog collection.”

Does anyone else see that there is no distinction between “CD Collection” and being “digital?” I, for one, made the switch to digital coding and storage of my music when I made the switch to CDs. They are digital. I still listen to my music in analog however. Whether on an iPod, CD, or “digital XM radio.” In fact, we have seen in the past 40 years a move from talking to computers in a “digital” fashion through programming in “machine code” to first creating computer “languages” that move more to human language and thought (Fortran, C++, etc), and now to developing interfaces for computers such as WordPress, iTunes, and others than make the computer more “human friendly” rather than making us more “digital.”

And here lies my point: This generation isn’t any more “digital” than any other. Humanity is inherently “analog.” We see things in analog, we hear in analog, and despite efforts to compare our brains to computers, we apparently think in analog. This “digital generation” is still engaged in all the things that youth of every generation have found to occupy their time.

One of the thoughts defining how the world has changed is that youth today are able to interact in “social computing spaces” such as MySpace and FaceBook. Is that really different from past generations? Some seem to think that, because teens are now relating from a keyboard, that this is somehow “different” and imbues these youth with something perhaps even “magical” that we have to learn to tap.

I would argue that teens, being human, are social animals. Today they use Web 2.0 tools. In the 90’s it was AOL Chat rooms (digital, I realize). Before that teens hung out at the mall (70’s and 80’s), Soda Shops (50’s) and Ice Cream Parlours (20’s and 30’s). Prior to that, despite long distances that separated the youth in our agrarian societies, they found time for “barn dances” and other social events. People of all ages and through all ages have wanted to be “together” and socialize with other people. That hasn’t changed.

“But wait” you may say, “now the youth are sharing and communicating in a very global way with people they have never met.” Yes, that is true. Of course, back in the days of what I call “web 0.0” people did the same with pen-pals and the use of postal services. People even solicited inputs from strangers by putting messages in bottles, attaching cards to balloon launches, and perhaps dozens of other creative ways of reaching out in very tactile ways to a world one didn’t even know.

But are our youth any more “global” than they were before? While Lee Rainie and Bryan Alexander talked about the global nature of this new communication, Lee did point out that most of the communication today is between small groups.  In response to a question I posed from the floor he pointed out that most “content creators” create for a small group, and believe that their work will only be viewed by a select few.  Some even control that group by limiting access to their “friends.”

So here is my bottom line :

Kids today aren’t any different than we were, or our parents were.  Technology is more pervasive simply because smart people have made digital into a more “analog” experience.  Perhaps we need to stop emoting over the technology, and focus again on people rather than process.

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