July 17, 2006

Digital natives

Writing about web page http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2101-2256968,00.html

This article in the Sunday Times is an interesting discussion of the concept of being "digitally native" or a "digital immigrant". Emily, who's 20, is a digital native:–

Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

But her mum, who's 55, isn't:–

Though 55–year–old Christine happily shops online and e–mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e–mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”

The interesting question is whether this distinction between people who have grown up with and always had access to some technologies and who use it continuously, ubiquitously and in a multi–tasking way, and people who are IT literate but not dependent in the same way signifies anything. Are twenty year olds in some significant sense different to 50 year olds because they're more dependent on their mobiles and they surf the web, email, text and IM, sometimes all at once? The article quotes people who think that the answer is "yes", but they mostly seem to be stating without proof:–

Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.

And another suggestion is that being digitally native implies an acceptance of rapid change which is less apparent in older people. But I don't think this is anything to do with technology per se; it's just that when you're younger, you're more accepting of or enthusiastic about change than when you're older. Since technology is changing quickly, young people are more comfortable with it than older people, but it's not the technology that's significant, it's the change; you could argue exactly the same thing about fashion.

So I don't know. There's nothing in this article, interesting though it is, that seems to offer any kind of convincing evidence that digital natives are different in any substantive way to digital immigrants except in the observable sense of how they use technology. Whether it's made them more intelligent, or shortened their attention span, or made them better at responding to certain stimuli seems to be an open question. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think? Arguments about whether the work students do at school prepares them for university as well as it used to are well rehearsed, but if you were to try and control for that in some way, would students today be observably different to how they were twenty years ago? And if they were, would the difference be plausibly attributable to their being digitally native?


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  1. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think?

    It might be worthwhile asking some. I argue that the difference is not within the wiring of people's brains, but rather in the relation between the social space and the thinking process (see my trackbacked entry). That has significant implications for learning technology.

    18 Jul 2006, 13:28

  2. From the article:
    “My parents are as au fait with the internet as I am,” says Nathan Midgley of the TheFishCanSing research consultancy, “but what they are not used to doing is upgrading. They got the internet seven years ago, but they bought it in the way you might have bought a TV 25 years ago: buy it and stick with it. People of my generation are much more used to the turnover of gadgetry."

    It occurs to me that this is not an unbiased article being from a research consultancy. The important part of the quote is the word 'turnover' (a clever, if perhaps unintentioned, double entendre). The high technology industry is very much a case of evolve or die, and Silicon Valley's history is full of companies who had a good idea and then didn't follow it up. If they cannot sell new gadgets then they're out of business so I am tempted to hypothesize that the 'research consultancy' is a marketing/PR bureau by another name trying to encourage older people to embrace the 'cool' technology (by parting with their hard earned cash) while patting younger people on the back for their cleverness in continuing to buy all the new products being thrust at them (by more regularly parting with their hard earned cash)...

    It may sound cynical, but these people are not around to measure trends for the good of the world or improve the lot of their fellow beings. Anyone in business is in it for the money. End of story.

    18 Jul 2006, 13:39

  3. John Dale

    I think that's right. There's a genuinely interesting question about whether always–on, multi–tasking communication tools change the way their users think and learn. But once a phrase like "digital native" is coined, it's just a matter of time before advertising scum appropriate the term as shorthand for "If you don't get a new phone every six months you're not part of the in–crowd". Sad but true.

    18 Jul 2006, 13:51

  4. Because of my age, I havew to be a digital immigrant. But I have learnt enough of the local lingo to get by and find the world it opens up to me extremely stimulating. With more time and fewer competing priorities, I'd work harder to become creative (like a digital Joseph Conrad). I like the constant change because it offers me prospects of (a) more fun, (b) better use of time, (c) a wider world, all for ever–decreasing sums of money.

    My sons have a clear edge over me when it comes to multi–tasking. Too many simultaneous signals induce nausea and drive me back to an old–fashioned book in the quiet shade of a tree.

    19 Jul 2006, 12:33

  5. Conversely, I am far more of a native than an immigrant, being entirely comfortable with the multi–tasking, upgrading and short attention spans described in the article. My teenage daughter, however, is an immigrant – digitally literate but luddite to a relatively high degree and reluctant to embrace technology beyond the immediately familiar and useful (texting!). So it's not just an age thing. This sort of argument is so dependant on who you ask as to be virtually meaningless in terms of establishing hard and fast criteria, unfortunately. Still, it sells the paper, eh?!

    19 Jul 2006, 15:25

  6. Robert O'Toole

    OK, so 'digital native' is now just 'so last week'. What buzz–word should we invent next?

    20 Jul 2006, 08:56

  7. I sometimes wonder whether text verses speech verses images is a more fundamental distinction than physical medium (electronic, paper, canvass).

    E.g. I spent many years in the telephone development industry. Despite being focused on creating telephone technology, many of the engineers preferred email to voice as a means of communication.

    20 Jul 2006, 10:06

  8. Interesting entry. I agree with #2 about the difference between old and young people with regard to turnover. My Dad still uses his BBC Micro for a lot of word processing and neither parent really wants to believe that the computer I got free from work, fixed up and installed as the newest family computer might actually need upgrading, "I mean, it's not even 10 years old yet"!

    The cost of multi–tasking is focus, I believe. I'm always amazed how much I can learn with a book in a quiet place. It's not the same as the constant cross–referencing and site hopping I can do online with wikipedia, articles etc. in sheer breadth but it's second to none in imparting a bounded amount of information. I do think many people have attention issues caused by what they are used to as digital natives. I've discreetly observed people studying around campus and no–one seems able to sit still reading for more than 15 minutes without needing to have a chat or get up or otherwise shift focus.

    20 Jul 2006, 12:05

  9. John Dale

    I wonder if the lack of focus is really a problem of people being unable to focus, or simply becoming more selective about where and when they choose to focus. Plenty of people who one might reasonably expect to be digitally native turned out to be able to sit through three hours of Lord of the Rings in the cinema, for example.

    21 Jul 2006, 16:50

  10. Over three hours :–)

    I'm digitally native and find my attention span these days is rather poor. That said, put me in a distraction free environment (away from the internet) and I can happily work for hours. I find the amount of information on offer these days makes it rather easy to read the web rather than doing what you are supposed to be.

    24 Jul 2006, 01:19

  11. John Dale

    Interesting article on the BBC web site:–

    More than 90% of UK mobile users cannot get through the day without using their phone, a survey suggests. Among younger users, 9% admitted being addicted to their phones and feeling out of control in how they used them, the Yougov poll of 16,500 people found.

    24 Jul 2006, 11:04


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