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.

reposted with permission from Agnostic Maybe


  1. karen wester newton5 April, 2011

    Hear, hear! I have grown children & I am tried of people being shocked when I mention I send them text messages– like a cell phone was too complicated for someone of my advanced years!

    Doing without technology, now that’s complicated.

  2. curiosity killed the..5 April, 2011

    this whole story reminds me of a scenario i thought of once where what if the world suddenly lost the internet for x amount of days and no proof when it would come back. if it was as significant of a time span of say a few years would people frantically try to reconnect their devices or would the general public slowly ween themselves off the fact it may never come back and push onward with new ways of communicating.

  3. Ric Day6 April, 2011

    The public speaker and media people love of creating named groups and then either exalting or demeaning them is incredibly annoying. My kids were born in the late 70s/early 80s and grew up in a home with computers and other gadgets. One has a career in IT, the other uses technology but not very well. I’m more broadly skilled with technology than either of them. So who, exactly, are the “digital natives” here?

    I totally agree … the usage is simultaneously (very) irksome and loathsome.

  4. Derek6 April, 2011

    Have you read Marc Prensky’s original piece on this term? His use of the term doesn’t include the idea that “digital natives” are somehow better at using or understanding technology. Instead, he points out that younger people tend to think differently because of the ubiquity of digital technologies in their lives.

    I think it’s a fair criticism that age isn’t perhaps as important as Prensky makes it out to be, but it’s also a misuse of the term (at least as it was coined) to say that using technology comes naturally to “digital natives.”

    The native / immigrant terms are problematic, of course, because of their use in other contexts. But it’s a useful reminder that our students just might not think about things the same way we do. To that end, Prensky’s idea of a “digital native” is just another example of learner-centered instruction–recognizing that our students bring with them to the classroom certain knowledge, experiences, and points of view and factoring those (diverse) perspectives into how we teach them.

  5. Derek6 April, 2011

    One more thing: I know you were being slightly tongue-in-cheek with your examples at the end of the blog post, but I think it’s reasonable to think that people born in America after 1788 might have different ways of thinking about democracy from those who lived through the American Revolution as adults. Sure, the native / immigrant terms are still problematic here, but the underlying idea is one that’s worth considering.

  6. […] on our “Stop Calling It __!” list: Digital Native (as opposed to Digital […]

  7. Tom11 April, 2011

    I enjoyed your article, and while I do believe you can teach an old dog new tricks, puppies do seem to be more open them. I think in 40 years there will be technologies that I won’t be interested in, that I will find hard to understand and adapt my old ways to. Does that make the younger generation native? I don’t think so, but perhaps more adaptable?

    I would love to convince my older colleagues that some of the social networking technologies could be useful to their work, and actually help our clients in my library, but that ship has sailed.


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