Digital natives

There were many memorable things about the conference I just attended. If I had to pick just one, it would be the “Aha!” moment when Wednesday’s keynote speaker referenced Marc Prensky’s paper about digital immigrants and digital natives. To grossly oversimplify, he equates the new generation – perhaps those of college age and younger – to native speakers, while the rest of us are immigrants – in the digital world. (See also Part II.)

Those that are immigrants “speak with an accent”, consisting of things like the “Did you get my email” phone call, or even printing out email messages and responding to them in writing before typing the response back. (Interestingly, when our of our colleagues emailed us the URL for this document, one of us immediately loaded it on his palm, while another printed it out. I’ll leave it to your imagination who’s who.)

The natives, on the other hand, are going to spend their entire lives wondering why the rest of us are so stupid.

My daughter goes to Google when she has a question about something. The notion of going to the library to do research has never crossed her mind, and likely never will. The library is for story books. When she wants to find out what the weather will be like, she asks me to look for the weather on the computer, not on the TV. And she is as comfortable with a mouse as with a pencil.

Now, most of my readers consider themselves natives, I’m sure. But most of you remember when you didn’t have a computer. You remember your first computer, and it was probably a Vic20 or a TRS80 or perhaps an Apple IIe. In the same way that our parents remember not having televisions. However, I think that this is a somewhat arbitrary border-line. Those of us who were aware of the internet, and certainly the WWW, from the very first days, probably have a headstart over many of our colleagues. But certainly many people my age find websites perplexing, attend classes on how to use Google, and print out their email messages.

I’ve found myself using this terminology since that keynote, when thinking about the ways in which I need to explain certain things to certain people, and the frustration I get when they don’t grasp why it matters. Of course it’s obvious to me, but it’s just as important to grasp why it’s not obvious to them.