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.

  • Pingback: Friends of Dave (friendsofdave) 's status on Wednesday, 23-Sep-09 04:08:56 UTC - Identi.ca()

  • jonathankochis

    There's a ton of research out their that supports the difficulty 'digital natives' have using the web specifically. Underdeveloped reading skills, poor research abilities, and a short attention span all contribute to this. The slow adoption of services such as Twitter by this generation backs your notion that kids of high-school and college age get stuck on a few tools or communities (namely the ones where their friends are) and don't 'aspire to master other digital gifts.' Great post.

  • Thanks. I think I'll track down some that research so I can base my random theories on something more than my personal observations and a tendency to question conventional wisdom that does not sync with what I observe over-and-over.

  • bernhoft

    Dear Rex,

    The phrase “Digital Native” may imply a level of technological savviness among a specific age group, but it does not imply a specific habit or behavior set, in any form or fashion.

    Your blog post represents a common thread among aging boomers, “curmudginness”. As your traditional values are being swept under the rug like the dust they have gathered you are beginning to panic. While it is understandable that you would feel this way, I felt it appropriate to make several observations about your main points in this post.

    1. “Most web users of a young age that should make them so-called “digital natives” aren’t doing any of these activities, themselves.” You are correct in saying that most Digital Natives are not engaged in these activities, but you are mistaken when you say that it disproves their value to you. Digital Natives have little catching up to do, your cohort does. These are training activities, sort of like diapers, for you and your friends. Start slowly and build on it.

    2. “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.” This is true for any generation or group of people. You are beginning to have either selective memory or side affects of your late years.

    3. “But way too many kids use digital technology the way people of my generation used television, radio and telephones: for uninspiring time-wasting diversion.” Firstly, define a waste of time and secondly, says who; you? If you are capable of making judgments of such a degree and caste then you should be willing to accept your unhealthy relationship to this darn blog the same thing.

  • bernhoft

    Dear Rex,

    The phrase “Digital Native” may imply a level of technological savviness among a specific age group, but it does not imply a specific habit or behavior set, in any form or fashion.

    Your blog post represents a common thread among aging boomers, “curmudginness”. As your traditional values are being swept under the rug like the dust they have gathered you are beginning to panic. While it is understandable that you would feel this way, I felt it appropriate to make several observations about your main points in this post.

    1. “Most web users of a young age that should make them so-called “digital natives” aren’t doing any of these activities, themselves.” You are correct in saying that most Digital Natives are not engaged in these activities, but you are mistaken when you say that it disproves their value to you. Digital Natives have little catching up to do, your cohort does. These are training activities, sort of like diapers, for you and your friends. Start slowly and build on it.

    2. “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.” This is true for any generation or group of people. You are beginning to have either selective memory or side affects of your late years.

    3. “But way too many kids use digital technology the way people of my generation used television, radio and telephones: for uninspiring time-wasting diversion.” Firstly, define a waste of time and secondly, says who; you? If you are capable of making judgments of such a degree and caste then you should be willing to accept your unhealthy relationship to this darn blog the same thing.