There’s a term flying around that really gets my goat, to put it like a Nancy Drew character. “Digital native” purports to describe a young person who has grown up surrounded by digital technology. It is a dangerous, grossly misleading term that needs to be nuked from orbit if we ever hope to move forward into a healthy relationship with The Future. Here’s why.
There Is No Fork
i remember a quote making the rounds during a conference on kids and technology. i’m not sure if it was borrowed from somewhere, but the gist of it was this: we’re not excited about using forks, because we’ve grown up with forks all our lives. Kids today have the same relationship with the Internet.
It’s true: there now exists a generation of people who have never known a life without the Internet, smart phones, VOIP, video conferencing and game consoles. So it must follow, some people reason, that these new technologies are as commonplace to them as are eating utensils.
To compare something as earth-shattering and civilization-changing as the Internet with something as mundane as a fork already betrays a lack of appreciation of the capability and complexity of the current Age … and i capitalize “Age” because i have no doubt that the networked computers have ushered in a capital-A Age of human technological development: as in Stone > Bronze > Iron > Internet. An astoundingly myopic focus sees only Pinterest and cat pictures; what’s happened in the past few decades is nothing short of epochal.
The Internet has been compared to the printing press, but that invention was not made available at a very low cost to millions of people enabling the unfettered transmission of type, sound, AND images – both moving and still – WITH automated language translation and free duplication and instant WORLDWIDE distribution. Take a much more macro view of human existence, and the printing press won’t even rank.
But more importantly, the term “digital native” subtly implies that because young people are surrounded by networked technology, they intuitively know how to use that technology. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It doesn’t matter what sort of technology you’re surrounded by: no one comes out of the womb knowing how to type a search engine query, pilot a spaceship, or even use a fork.
The crucial difference, continuing with our fork/computer comparison, is that today’s parents know how to use a fork, they know the importance of using a fork, and they consequently teach their children how to use a fork. In contrast, today’s parents do not know how to use computers, they do not know the importance of using computers, and they therefore do not and cannot teach their children to use computers.
Father may know best, but he definitely doesn’t know how or why to defrag a hard drive.
Calling kids “digital natives” seems to leave technology education up to forces of nature, as if kids are somehow going to learn how to properly use a computer by osmosis – much like we’ve done with sex education, and look at how that’s turned out. i’ve seen the resulting ignorance that a tack like that produces; when i taught a group of first year college students a few years ago, i required them to zip their midterm test file and email it to me as an attachment. The class erupted with protests. They did not know how to zip computer files. They did not know how to attach files to emails. They did not know how to send emails. And in which program were they enrolled? Video game design.
So in this computer course, you want me to … USE … a computer?
But why should they know how to send emails? Email is a very recent advancement. It’s really only seen widespread use for the past fifteen years. i didn’t really begin to use email heavily until i was working full-time in an office setting. And how were these kids supposed to know how to archive a collection of files? It’s an easy thing to do, but you don’t know what you don’t know. Archiving has only been a recent addition to operating systems; prior to its inclusion in Windows XP (i believe?), you had to download a shareware program like WinZip or gZip or WinRar to archive files. It’s not really something you’d naturally know how to do until you’ve been required to do it.
Tying your shoes: not incredibly difficult, but definitely a learned skill.
i found that the students i’ve taught and the young graduates i’ve mentored – “digital natives”, all – have been completely hopeless at using search engines, a skill i call “Google-Fu”. They’ve been taught by their high school teachers never to use Wikipedia as a source because it’s “unreliable”, due to the fact that “anyone can edit it”. (Teachers, if you think that just anyone is on Wikipedia writing extensive entries on complex mathematical theorems, ancient Jewish mysticism, and common practices in the manufacture of thumbtacks, kindly retire. The Future will take it from here.)
Lately, this admonishment has softened to become “fine – use Wikipedia, but it can’t be your only source”, which is equally ridiculous, because many well-written Wikipedia articles are already cross-referenced to the nines with links to all of the material that would turn up through diligent independent research anyway . And often, articles that are further off the beaten path all have Talk pages which feature ongoing discussions on how those articles are being written and refined. Talk pages are excellent resources to help young researchers identify authorial biases and to develop media criticism skills.
And again, the fact that so many young people i meet have been told not to use Wikipedia as a source suggests an education system that, itself, does not understand the current Age and has been teaching neither adequately nor accurately.
If someone vandalizes a Wikipedia article to make Magellan a contemporary of Cap’n Crunch, and a student cites that passage verbatim, the problem is not Wikipedia.
Forgotten Knowledge from the Mists of Time
i attended college on the cusp of the changeover between a period in personal computing where it was a niche interest of hobbyists, and the explosion of networked machines into the lives of everyone on the planet. And being involved during the changing of the guard, i was very fortunate to attend a class at my school that unravelled some of the crucial mysteries of computing for me, and to this day, i am immensely thankful that i have this knowledge.
The course taught me what a disk is, and explained the actual physical process involved in storing data inside a computer. i learned what RAM was, what a ROM was, and why waving a magnet around near your computer was a bad idea. i came to understand how digital displays worked, and the difference between our increasingly old-fashioned cathode ray tube monitors, and these newfangled flat LCD monitors. i learned what a bus was, how a microprocessor worked, why we talked about “BOOTing” computers, and where the term “spam” came from. i learned how search engines indexed web pages on the Internet, and that knowledge alone has made me particularly adept at Google fu. i was taught about viruses, what they were and how to avoid them.
To this day, i understand how disk drives and CDs store digital information. This should be common knowledge.
All of this amazing and wonderful arcane knowledge is stuff that we no longer teach, because we have a generation populated by “digital natives”. Our kids know how to thumb around on tablet and smart phone devices that have one button. They can communicate with each other as long as it’s nothing too complicated, and as long as it all boils down to one gigantic shiny graphic element that says “SEND”. Some know it all boils down to 1’s and 0’s somewhere down the line, but they have no idea how or why, or why they should care. As long as it all just works, they’re fine. They can’t swap the battery out of their devices, but pretty soon they won’t need to: companies like Apple are leading the charge with perfectly impenetrable little boxes that we must return to them to service. The days of tinkering are disappearing. Our future – The Future – belongs to the companies who build the devices, who hold the keys, and who alone understand how things work.
Making Us Go
IANASTF (i am not a Star Trek fan), but one Trek episode introduces an alien race called the Pakleds:
The Pakleds appear to be very simple-minded, yet somehow they’re flying around in spaceships. That’s because they steal as much technology as they can get their hands on – “things to make us go“, without ever putting in the effort to develop their own technology, or to understand how their stolen technology works. They desire only the power that this technology brings, and they don’t care about the ramifications or consequences of using it.
The poisonous term “digital natives” excuses us from effectively teaching our children how to properly use, appreciate, and understand the incredible networked computer technology that now permeates our lives. We don’t want to learn how to program – we just want programs that work. We want things to make us go. We have become, and we are raising, a generation of Pakleds – a devolution of humankind which, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, is dandruff on the shoulders of giants. To wit: we’re flaky. It’s time that we do away with the term “digital natives” altogether, accept our responsibility, and recognize the importance of teaching our young people how to effectively navigate and steer the incredible future they will soon inherit.