Are you a digital native or a digital immigrant?
If you were born before the year 2000 you might remember TV only showing programmes on a schedule, maybe you dialled numbers into a phone to make a call, and only those few people you spoke face-to-face to ever heard your opinions. If you were born some time after 2000, you were born into a world where digital technology changed everything.
Some people recognised this early on. Marc Prensky wrote about how the education system wasn’t going to be able to meet the needs of the young people, and he coined the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ to explain why. He used these in describing the digital world as a country where those born into it thought, felt and acted in fundamentally different ways to those who came from the ‘old world’ of analogue thinking. To Prensky, and others such as Dr. Bruce Perry of Baylor College of Medicine, young people having grown up with digital technology all around them, and huge amounts of information coming at them all the time, thought, communicated, socialised, created and learned in fundamentally different ways. This was a discontinuous change in thinking patterns, they said, unlike anything that had gone before.
Digital natives live surrounded by digital technologies. Computers and the Internet are natural parts of their lives, they don’t need to familiarise themselves with the technology by comparing it to something else, it just makes sense to them. They take in information in random and disconnected ways and thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. And they see their place in networks and do not find the complexity and continuous flow of digital information to be problematic. Things changing at an ever faster pace is just normal for digital natives.
What feels ordinary to digital natives is novelty to digital immigrants.
To digital immigrants, information feels best received in a slow, step-by-step, linear fashion. They tend to think of the physical and digital as separate worlds. And they always have one foot in the past with a sense of nostalgia about reading printed books or being disconnected from the Internet.
Prensky was writing about education, so it’s easy to see why he would think of the difference between digital native and digital immigrants as being about age, and split between student and teacher. If, instead, we think about how ubiquitous digital technology affects people in all kinds of different situations and scenarios then age doesn’t look like a factor. Perhaps being a digital native is less about when someone is born and more about what experience they have with technology.
In fact, according to an article in the British Journal of Education Technology, there is very little evidence that young people are radically different in the ways they use and process information. And there many researchers who have critiqued the notion that age or generation is best way to understand the difference between those who tech-savvy and those that aren’t. Don Tapscott, who specialises in the role of technology in business and society, says that a “digital native is defined by exposure to, or experience with, technology”. People become digital natives by using more technology, in more ways, more of the time.
It’s not too late for those of us born before the twenty-first century to join the digital revolution. Being a digital immigrant is not fixed. Developing the mindset of a digital native is a matter of experience. The more you use digital technology, and the more things you use it for, the more you understand the concepts and applications of digital technology as an integrated part of life.
Take identity, for example. To digital natives, identity is more fluid than for digital immigrants. When digital immigrants project their ‘real’ selves into cyberspace, they want the things they put online to be associated with their real name, to represent some essential essence of who they really are, to have authenticity and status. To a digital native, interacting with the world (physical and virtual, because they aren’t separate) through a username, an online account can be dropped, changed, or a new one made in seconds. Their ‘identity’ is no more stable than an email address.
Or take ownership as a another example. Dr. Alec Couros, professor of educational technology & media, said, “the speed and ubiquity of social media complicate our ability to control our digital footprint, directly impacting our identities”. That’s a digital immigrant’s way of saying that once you put something online, you don’t own it, you don’t control it. Everything you put online can be easily copied, instantly shared, infinitely edited and is viewable by millions of people.
And privacy too, that’s another example. Couros also talks about how our online lives are “public by default, private by effort”. He means that, not only are social media platforms and digital technologies usually designed to share people’s data, even if they aren’t aware or might not want to, but that for digital natives the first instinct is to share and that keeping things private requires stopping and thinking.
So, when we say that digital technology affects everything in our lives, we mean everything. In the twenty-first century, everything we think, feel, say, do, buy, write, read, watch, listen to, is affected by digital technology.
Bill Gates wrote that new digital technology amplifies human potential. It’s effect could be as great as electricity. Or greater. The sooner we all become digital natives, the more we adopt a digital mindset and feel at home in a hyper-connected, on demand, real time networked, digital world, the more of that potential we can realise.
But even if we don’t, a hundred years from now the distinction between digital native or immigrant will be gone. No one will remember a time without the Internet.