Friday, June 08, 2007

This digital native/immigrant thing

On Wednesday night someone in the chat channel of the FOE2007 conference made a comment that caught my attention. The speaker was talking about digital natives, and the concept had the chat channel buzzing. Is it relevant? Valid? Will people who were born into the era of the computer be noticeably different from those who had to "migrate" to the technology?

Then someone said, by way of a metaphor, that we have all had TV all our lives. You know what? That's not true. TV only arrived in South Africa when I was in high school. 1975 I think it was. The National Party government fought hard to keep TV out for as long as possible - in fact, it was referred to as "the devil's box". When TV first arrived, it was heavily censored. So, if I am a digital immigrant, then I am a TV immigrant, too. Yet no-one uses that term. No-one thinks in those terms.

In 1982, the kids starting school in South Africa were the first intake ever to have been exposed to TV since birth. There was a flurry of interested speculation - how different would these kids be? Within a very short space of time, it became evident that they were not somehow magically more able to use the TV or interact with the content presented than those who were not born to the technology.

Is there anything at all about me that tells even the most diligent observer that I was born into a TV-less world, whereas my younger cousins were not? That they are natives, while I am an immigrant? I very much doubt it - our usage of TV is indistinguishable.

So I don't think the flurry of speculation about the divide between the so-called digital natives and immigrants will carry much weight either.

There is another analogy to draw from South Africa's late adoption of TV. They didn't start with the old black and white valve powered sets of the first world's yesteryear and follow the path taken by the trailblazers. They jumped straight in with state of the art technology and (for one thing) their sports coverage was recognised as being world class, pretty much from the off.

I see no reason for things to be any different in respect of web 2.0 technologies either. Why should late adopters have to start where the innovators and early adopters did? They'll jump straight in at the point that these leaders have reached, and pretty soon be indistinguishable from them!

Why not?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Karyn. I've always felt a little uneasy about the whole native/immigrant distinction myself. It's almost as if we 'immigrants' are putting the 'natives' on a pedestal simply because they have always had access... yet I don't see nearly enough conversation being produced by the natives. The immigrants, on the other hand...

When all is said and done, it is what is done with the tools that matters, irrespective of who does it. I cannot help comparing this to an argument I had over which was the better platform for desktop publishing... and of course, for the consumer what was important was not whether the school magazine had been made on a Mac or a PC, but whether the quality of the final printout was good or bad. In other words, the PC/Mac was irrelevant, but the printer was priceless.

Immigrant/native... ultimately doesn't matter. What is being said does...

Harold Jarche said...

Maybe (just maybe, as I'm not really sure either) it's because we never interacted with the TV. It acted upon us. I see the stuff my boys are creating online and it's pretty neat.

rlubensky said...

As a 50 year old, I have have been told that I am not a digital native, as if it is just a matter of age. I abhor the term. I've been using and programming computers since 1972 so if anybody has a genuine claim to understanding the affordances of digital technology, it's me. I would argue that those born into our technocratic society are actually handicapped by a lack of criticality because they have never lived differently. If I don't use a new digital innovation, just maybe it's because I choose not to rather than not having some innate affinity to it.

One more thing. I'm a naturalised Australian, immigrating from Canada twenty years ago. But I still get asked "how long are you here for?" My response has become evermore strident: Forever (you insular moron)! So this native/immigrant thing carries some extra baggage for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments. Ron and Neil, I feel your frustration! Ron: either the photos I've seen of you are very old or you are wearing well!

Harold, you make a good point about interactivity. My analogy certainly falls down, there, but I'm sure there are others that cover that base, too ;-)

Anonymous said...

For a really insightful and research based treatment of youth and technology and also notions such as 'digital natives' (or whatever metaphor) I can highly recommend the book "Screenplay" written by Keri Facer, John Furlong and Rosamund Sutherland. It is an academic publication but equally worth reading for parents, teachers, policy makers and so on.

In the book such metaphors are treated with a healthy skepticism - not abolishing completely some interesting aspects of them, but certainly not taking them at face value either!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Thomas... I think! I went straight to Amazon to have a look at that book and wound up buying it and 3 others to the tune of over £60! Just in case you're interested, they are: Scoble's "Naked Conversations" (long overdue on buying that one); "Young People and New Media" By Sonia Livingstone and "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals..." by John Batelle.

I think they will all prive very helpful for my dissertation.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry about that :) I notice that you make reference to the social software report from futurelab, so I guess you are already aware of all the great and freely available literature reviews, articles and so on their pages:

If you were not I hope this can remedy somewhat my causing you to spend 60£ :-D