Catherine's analysis

‘Digital natives’: How far does this trope really get us?

Dig nat meme

I was at my local library furiously working away on my laptop a few weeks ago.   The large table I was sitting at was shared by group of people.   After some time, an older, grey haired gentleman who had been sitting nearby asked me for some help. He was having trouble connecting to the library’s WiFi network and wondered if I could fix the problem. Not having been able to connect to the WiFi network myself, my first response was that, of the several other people at the table, he had chosen the wrong person to ask. I was, probably, the youngest among the group of people he could have approached however. Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time others have assumed that I, or those young people around me, possess superior knowledge of social and communication technologies. After all, we are the ‘digital natives’, and therefore we must be able to fix a myriad of complex technological problems.

The increasingly pervasive concept of the ‘digital native’ emerged not within academia, but within popular culture. It is the idea that those born within the last 20-30 years naturally possess expertise in regards to operating social and information technologies.   If you are young then you are ‘good’ at doing a range of things relating to the Internet, laptops, smart-phones to list just a few. Parents are seemingly astounded at their young children’s ability to sophisticatedly operate the family Ipad in ways they could only dream. Those parents, and ‘older’ people, are not ‘digital natives’, they are a ‘digital migrants’. They have learned how to use, operate and incorporate social and information technologies into everyday lives only as adults. They are foreigners, and recent incomers to the digitised world.

While the concept of the ‘digital native’ did not necessary originate within academia, it has certainty be vigorously criticised within that sphere. Arguments against the concept primarily concern the needless homogenization of young people, their skills and knowledge. They contend that it is patently erroneous to assume that just by being ‘young’, individuals will necessarily share more in common with one and other, than with older people for example. In the context of social and information technologies, becoming ‘expert’ users is the result of a learning process, the same as acquiring any other skill. If a young person is seemingly able to operate a device, or negotiate a particular platform with ease, it is because they have drawn on a range of resources within their environments to inform their use and understanding.

Still, young people tend to be associated with social technologies and continue to be cast as natural users. The concept of ‘digital natives’ is an enduring one in popular debate. So after having dis-credited the concept of the ‘digital native’, why might this trend still occur? Researchers like dana boyd attribute this to the fact that those born in the last 20-30 years have grown into adulthood in an environment with unprecedented levels of social and information technology saturation. In a world where mediated sociality is not only possible, but the norm, such technologies arguably take a more central role in everyday lives than before. And sharing a relatively prominent position like this, it is perhaps unsurprising that younger people are more comfortable, familiar users. They are more ready and more confident to experiment, to problem-solve and to generate new affordances within digital spaces.

As it turned out, I was able to help the older man in the library connect to the WiFi network. It emerged that both he and I were on the same page and had same level of knowledge in regards to connecting with WiFi networks. The only difference was that I was perhaps slightly more confident in problem solving and trying solutions. The classic ‘turn-it-off-turn-it-back-on-again’ is the perennial first stop for ignorant problem solvers such as myself. And in this case, it was successful.

So while the uncritical links between young people and digital expertise have been heavily criticised, and the ‘digital native’ trope along with it, perhaps the metaphor of the ‘native’ and the ‘incomer’ is more instructive than its critiques credit. That is, instead of young people being cast as experts simply due to their relative youth, those who have grown up in a world saturated by technologies with a potentially more familiar, habitual relationship with technologies could still be considered ‘native’ in this modern ‘digital world’ of the last 20-30 years. Ultimately, if we can modify assumptions relating to the meaning of the concept, then it could be broadly deployed in a more useful manner.

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