SunSpec: Digital Native Diatribe

In listening to one of the keynotes at Computers in Libraries conference last week about the digital natives, I sat in the main ballroom and quietly seethed. My eyes were Gatling cannons of mind bullets, none of which were capable of bringing down the buzzword behemoth that lumbered onwards in its rhetoric. “The digital natives are this”. “The digital natives are that”. I was hoping that the curtain behind the speaker would part and reveal a digital native shackled to a display a la King Kong.

“Look! He almost looks human the way he is using his thumbs to interact with tools!”

“Stop taking pictures! He’ll break his chains and crash into the audience, asking what kind of phone you are using!”

For the record, it’s not the term that drives me crazy; it’s the definition. The idea that just because people are born into the modern era automatically allows them to have a better intuition or understanding of digital technology is just preposterous to me. While I will concede that new generation will have no memory of a time when such technology did not exist, the implication that they are somehow better suited or more attuned to the technology implies that some sort of advanced neurological evolution has occurred within a span of a generation. Like our contemporary and ancient ancestors before us, digital technology is just another tool that requires mastery and one that individuals can choose to accept or reject regardless as to their age.

I believe being a digital native is based on the acceptance of digital interfaces and technology into one’s life (which is another definition listed in the Wikipedia entry but not the one that was used by the keynote speaker). It’s a matter of what it means to have technology in your life and how you handle it. For some, it’s a smartphone, gadgets, and profiles on Facebook or Twitter; for others, it’s maybe a phone line. It doesn’t matter whether you are 5 or 105; if the technology doesn’t interest you, doesn’t fit into your life, or doesn’t mesh with your reality, then you are not going to use it. Even then, there is a normal human learning curve for adoption and use of the technology.

But since I can’t pass it up, for those in favor of the definition of digital natives to be applicable to the generation being born, answer me a few questions:

  • When I was born in 1977, disco music was reaching the height of popularity. As I would not remember a world without disco music, does that make me a “disco native” and my parents “disco immigrants”?
  • For the children born in the United States after 1788, they would have never known what it is what like to be under colonial control. Would they be called “democracy natives” and their parents “democracy immigrants”?
  • When our ancestors mastered fire as a use for heat, light, protection, and cooking, would it be proper for them to refer to their children as “combustion natives”?

Can we get back to treating them like people rather than social exotics? Because this unfounded mystique that has been granted to them is rather irksome and loathsome all at once.

9 thoughts on “SunSpec: Digital Native Diatribe

  1. On the one hand, I hate generalizations of all types. We’re all individuals with individual characteristics, making it unfair to everyone to hold any one person to a stereotype (or even a scientifically-collected statistic).

    On the other hand, I do feel as though the library world is basing its services and its attitudes about new things based on their personal interests and comfort levels (and a lack of time, resources, or interest in continuing education/exploration), which do not tend to reflect the interests and comfort levels of our younger patrons. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I can’t even comprehend sending 1,000 text messages a month. I was put off by home gaming systems once the controllers got more complicated than six buttons and a d-pad. In library school just a few years ago my classes were full of an ‘ebooks will never catch on, nobody likes them, paper is a god’ sentiment.

    Is it logical to say that if fire technology exists from the time I’m born, I have a better chance of becoming interested in and proficient at the use of fire, but that if it’s only ‘discovered’ when I’m 40 I might already be a very, very good weaver of grass blankets, and while I might recognize that fire is a valid tool, I have less of a chance of rearranging my entire life around it (since I feel perfectly warm, thankyouverymuch and it’s hard to make time to learn about this newfangled technology because the blanket business is failing so I have to work even harder at making blankets just to earn enough to buy a few squirrels for dinner).

  2. I hate it when people think that averaging a group of people into one nonexistent profile is a good way of defining a group.

    I have a problem with generational stereotypes just as much as I do with any other type of stereotypes. I’ve met teenagers unfamiliar with technology because of the situation their born into or because they just aren’t interested. And I’ve met many older people who take to technology better than I ever did.

    I have seen this trend in many fields (not just library science) of wanting to label and categorize users, consumers, patrons, students, etc. Sometimes, it strikes me as a way for older generations to understand the younger generations without actually getting to know them. Our minds tend to break things down into approachable chunks, and that can be a bad approach. Especially if we miss the fact that, as your point out, our “digital natives” can have varying degrees of technological proficiency and utilization. I think a better approach than defining “what” users are is to find out what they want. If we follow the stereotypes, we’re doing patrons a disservice.

  3. Yes! Thank you for pointing out that, as with all generational groups, the dividing lines are arbitrary and ultimately we are all people with the same needs…just at different points in our life’s continuum.

  4. By the standard logic, I’m a “space native” since humans have been in space since I was born. Thank you for saying this more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to manage.

  5. Pingback: Digital Native Diatribe | The Digital Reader

  6. This may be my favorite post ever on this blog.”The implication that they are somehow better suited or more attuned to the technology implies that some sort of advanced neurological evolution has occurred within a span of a generation.” I have heard this very assertion made several times; if you look, you’ll find all kinds of claims that the brain pathways of “millennials” are being wired differently than those of previous generations. I’d like to see some hard data to back up all of these vague statements that people enjoy throwing around.

    There’s a widespread perception that anyone born after, say, 1975 is a techno-wizard. It’s just not true. The number of college students who program and code for fun is far, far lower than most people realize. I spend a lot of time teaching students how to use thumb drives. The ability to text does not translate into the ability to do anything else!

    • Thanks for your additional comments, Kelly. I have similar experiences at my public library. They may have had computers in their classroom growing up, but there is still a learning curve that needs to be overcome and technology acceptance.

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