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.