The myth of what digital natives know

Since Monday was a national holiday in Japan called Respect for the Aged Day, I think it’s only appropriate that during this week, I use my fast-approaching “aged” status to bash the notion that “digital natives” — young people who have grown up with keyboards and game-controllers attached to their fingers — are somehow generationally pre-disposed to understand how to use technology and the internet. For a long time on this blog and in other venues, I’ve argued that such a concept is total bunk perpetuated by some aged guys who are too lazy to learn anything new. (Oops, that sounded disrespectful.) Last weekend, I read this piece on Xconomy.com suggesting that “a way to catch up with digital natives was to try out seven projects “to stretch your digital wings.” The projects include:

1. Make a Digital Painting with Brushes.
2. Start Lifestreaming with Friendfeed or Posterous.
3. Document a Space with Photosynth.
4. Become an Amateur Podcaster with AudioBoo.
5. Create a Short Animated Film with Xtranormal.
6. Put Yourself on the Map with Platial.
7. Become a Virtual Architect in Second Life.

The notion that doing any of these things has something to do with being a digital native — or not — is ridiculous. But my argument is not what you think (I’m not here to point out that lots of digital natives are old farts). My argument rather is this: Most web users of a young age that should make them so-called “digital natives” aren’t doing any of these activities, themselves.

I believe so-called digital natives are becoming what I’ve termed “neo-traditionalists” as they are comfortably entrenching themselves into a set of digital tools and patterns — and are as reluctant as people of any age to break free from their comfort zone. For most kids of high school and college age today, this means a high percentage of their “digital time” is spent on FaceBook, on a cell phone, and on a game platform. And it means using just a a small set of functions, features, games and apps.

Yes, there are among young people of “digital native” age a sub-set of technically savvy or artistically gifted young individuals who are inspired to master the digital gifts that living in this age has afforded them. But way too many kids use digital technology the way people of my generation used television, radio and telephones: for uninspiring time-wasting diversion.