Digital Natives

Valiplotter Astro Computer Lab : Consolidated/Convair Aircraft Factory San Diego Equipment from Flickr Commons

I just spent 10 minutes showing my teenage nephew how to search for a better video player than the one that came with his computer, download and install it. He has a PC, I have a Mac. I knew nothing about playing video on PCs before about half an hour ago and yet here we are. He’s fiddling with his new video player and I’m left wondering what people mean by “digital natives”.

When people use that phrase it’s usually to refer to younger people, people who have grown up with computers and the web and, somehow, have it in their blood. We assume that they instinctively know how to do anything on the internet. Well, from my experience of young people, they often don’t.

This week saw some really exciting projects dreamt up by some intimidatingly young and talented people as part of Young Rewired State. The projects seemed to confirm everything we like to think about young people: that they’re creative, imaginative and whizzes with computers. From what I saw of the project, the young people involved are all of those things.

But they are just a subset of young people. Many of the young people involved in Young Rewired State seem to have developed their skills despite school rather than because of it. Regardless of what is being taught in the classroom those young people are passionate about computers and coding and creating things. And, of course, learning. They are driven, fascinated by the possibilities of technology.

But they are young people with a particular interest. And not necessarily representative.

So the whole idea of digital natives seems to me to be rather condescending. It devalues the young people who are passionate about technology by reducing everything they’re worked hard to learn as merely something that’s been absorbed from the world that adults have made for them. And it devalues the young people who aren’t interested in technology by assuming they’re into computers whether or not they are.

What’s much more likely is that, as has ever been true, different people are absorbed by very different things. Being young is no more an indicator of computational prowess than being old means you don’t know what VLC is.

Long may that be the case.

  1. I agree.
    They might know more about certain things because they have friends who have certain software/hardware and they share information about it. I haven’t found that my teenage relatives know much about, say, databases or HTML.

    • Thanks for the comment. A similar thing came up the other day when people were tweeting the link about marketing people not getting social media because of their age. The same assumption about younger people being naturally more capable was rolled out. It’s a tired cliché.

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