Unpacking the concept of the ‘digital native’

Marc Prensky coined the term ‘digital native’ in 2001 to refer to his students and to help others in education understand the differences he saw between his students and their teachers/professors:

They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past. We will read a manual, for example, to understand a program before we think to let the program teach itself. Our accent from the predigital world often makes it difficult for us to effectively communicate with our students.

Our students, as digital natives, will continue to evolve and change so rapidly that we won’t be able to keep up. This phenomenon renders traditional catch-up methods, such as inservice training, essentially useless. We need more radical solutions. For example, students could learn algebra far more quickly and effectively if instruction were available in game format. Students would need to beat the game to pass the course. They would be invested and engaged in the process.

Since then, the idea of the ‘digital native’ has gained a lot of traction and, like many memes, has evolved into a set of assumptions about what makes one person a digital native and another person a digital immigrant. I have heard the term used in all sorts of contexts, from business to media, and often it’s used in a discussions about how “We must hire more digital natives”, (where “we” is the company or organisation that the speaker represents), “Digital natives will change everything”, or “Digital natives will expect us to use social software”.

But what is a digital native? How can we tell one when we see one? For many, the assumptions about what makes a person a digital native revolve around age: The “net generation” are all digital natives because they have grown up with technology embedded so firmly in their lives that they barely recognise it as tech.

This assumption, that a given generation is automatically imbued with a natural understanding of technology in general and the web in particular, is wrong. I have spoken to many an undergraduate class, as has Kevin, made up primarily of people who did not have an interest in the web at all, who distrust it, feel it has no place in their work (and sometimes personal) lives. There is a tendency amongst each generation to believe that the generations that come afterwards are in some way fundamentally different, and it seems to be a natural part of being human to dissociate oneself from younger generations. Maybe that is why we name each generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen X to the Net Generation, so that we can talk about them as if they are ‘other’ to us. Is not ‘digital natives’ just another way to achieve that?

Amongst academics at least, it’s recognised that the term ‘digital native’ should not be used as a way to describe a particular generation. Harvard’s John Palfrey, co-author of the book Born Digital, says:

– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

He then goes on to list a set of descriptive terms for different groups of people on the web using territorial terms that I find a little disquieting, because they imply a culture of ownership that is misleading. The web, and particularly the social web, is a lot less about ownership and a lot more about participation and sharing, so to use terms reminiscent of the age of empire is to set up a theme of control within the reader’s mind which is at odds with the reality of the internet.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

It remains to be seen whether being born at a certain time has any actual impact on one’s ability to understand and adapt to life on the web. I have certainly come across counter-examples where supposed digital natives fail to understand the ramifications of their actions, or show a distinct disinterest in social tools in a business context because of their own prejudices about what social tools are for, e.g. Facebook users for whom the site is their only experience of the web, and because Facebook is about organising their private lives they believe that social tools have no place in the work environment.

Palfrey also quotes danah boyd and her reaction to the term:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

The key point here is that we’re talking not about a generation but about a level of understanding, and that understanding can be achieved, in my opinion, by anyone with an open mind, some imagination and access to the web, regardless of age or background.

We also have to remember that the web is not homogenous. We cannot talk about ‘web culture’, or even ‘social software culture’ as if it one thing. There are cultural themes such as sharing and honesty that bind together users of social tools, for example, but they vary from tool to tool, along with the demographic of that tool’s users. So we need to be careful about making assumptions about what type of people will find it easy to exist within a specific web culture – someone already active within an offline culture with the same values and expressions as a given online culture will find it easier to fit in than a so-called ‘digital native’ who has all of the digital experience and understanding but none of the relevant cultural references.

This relevant to civil society organisations because the idea of ‘digital natives’, when taken to its logical extreme (as happens when a thought-provoking academic term is let loose into the wild where it’s used in all sorts of ways that are dissociated from its original context) creates an assumption in non-webby communities that the only kind of people who can deal with the web are ‘those other people, those digital natives’. It’s too easy and too comfortable for non-webby people to think that the web is something that can’t be learnt, but to which you must be born.

Not only is this not the case, as many a ‘silver surfer’ will attest, but it’s an actively damaging assumption that can be seen worming its way into hiring, training and web development policies. When I hear business people saying “We need to hire more digital natives”, it is said with the assumption that anyone straight out of university will have the appropriate knowledge and skills, and dismisses the idea that older people could fit the role more tightly.

In civil society organisations, resources are always tight and if the wrong assumptions underpin hiring, training and web development decision making, it can severely damage the organisation and limit its growth. We need to think very hard about what makes someone good at being online, not just so that the right people are hired, but also so that existing talent within organisation is recognised, respected and rewarded. We need to understand where cultural fit is more important than skills, and which skills can be most easily taught, which are tougher to communicate, and why. What we don’t need is to bandy about a term like ‘digital natives’ that is open to so much misinterpretation.

There is a lot more online that I want to read about this issue, but I also want to get this post up and get your responses to it. Please do let me know your thoughts, point me to any research or papers I should read. I have Neil Selwyn’s paper The digital native – myth and reality to read, as well as The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin. What else is relevant? What evidence do you have for and against digital natives? What problems have you seen occur because of a misunderstanding about who is good at doing stuff online? What do you think civil society organisations need to be thinking about when recruiting for web positions?

3 thoughts on “Unpacking the concept of the ‘digital native’

  1. As Palrey notes, there is some salience to the term but at the same time thinking in those terms can be wildly misleading. Based on generation, I’m a digital immigrant. Except I’ve been using the internet since pre-web days. So I guess I’d be a digital native except I’ve never been into computer games. I’m not sure where I would fit.

    I wrote a post that touches on this not long ago, “The class system alive and well and now online,” where I argued that we think on class as vertical (poor, middle class, rich) but it’s also vertical – all these distinctions we make, digital native vs immigrant another example. One of the characteristics of how we define ourselves is the way the definition limits our view. (As you mention, the world wide web is hardly world wide.)

    btw … I didn’t really come to any conclusion except that we have to at least try to keep in mind that our views of the world are limited.

  2. Digital Native is a state of mind.

    It’s using Google / Wikipedia as your primary choice for settling an argument.
    It’s checking whether your friends are free by looking at Facebook.

    But it runs even deeper than that…
    It’s needing to sort some data and knowing that you can use Excel.
    It’s having to edit two documents together and opening two windows rather than printing both out and copy-typing.

    I’ve seen those last two more recently than I care to mention.

    We need to make tools much easier to use. The majority* of all Excel sheets would be better served by being in a database. But a DB is to hard to use, let alone manage. That’s assuming the office manager has even heard of SQL.

    I’ve had a computer for all of my living memory – and that certainly helps. But “Being Digital” is like a religion, just because you’re born in to it does not make you an adherent. You have to devote your life to understanding how to be digital.
    T
    *Made up statistic

  3. I’m from the typewriter-library generation. My experience is that I’m more aware of the web as a communication tool than almost all of the university students I meet. My PhD thesis is a reflective examination of how I moved from technophobia to becoming a strident web-enthusiast, and I now believe that digital literacy is more significant than age.

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