Digital immigrants, digital natives

I’ve just had a chance to read the essay Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives by Marc Prensky (hat-tip: Granny Rose). The idea is that those born into the digital ages are ‘natives’ who think in a different way to those who have had to learn the new digital language. The immigrants have an ‘accent’ (printing out e-mails, or showing someone a website rather than e-mailing it), while the natives prefer to speak the new language (“‘www.hungry.com’ said a kindergarten student recently at lunchtime”). The conclusion is that it is the digital immigrants who will have to change they way they think, and crucially, teach… because the natives certainly aren’t going to bother with any kind of ‘backwards compatibility’.

I can hardly brand myself as a Digital Founding Father, but I am certainly a founding citizen, present at the birth of the revolution. I remember the old ways of rotary telephones, hand-written essays, blue airmail envelopes, and car doors that had to be opened with a key. But we also had a Sinclair Spectrum, and I remember playing maths games on a BBC Micro when I was only six. I think there was a window of opportunity, of those born in the mid-to-late seventies, to surf the digital wave. Each new development has been available to use at just the right time, and we’ve never had to learn anything from scratch. Pity the poor immigrants, who have to learn myriad concepts and conventions just to send a text message. And pity the poor natives, ignorant of fountain pens. They do not appreciate how far we have sailed.

10 thoughts on “Digital immigrants, digital natives”

  1. My car door still opens with a key. Well, has to be opened with a key. But then that could be because the battery in the remote is dead 😉

  2. Wonderful. But I think the window of opportunity is somewhat wider than you think. I have a brother born in 1971, who is very much within the category you describe. Even someone in their 40s, if they were technologically-inclined in their youth would be a bilingual “founding citizen” every bit as much as you. Personally, I would say if you can’t remember a time *before* computers, then you’re a native and not strictly a founding citizen – Loving the notion of “backwards compatibility”: everyone who has it is a founding citizen, everyone who doesn’t is not. Though I would define a true native as someone whose cultural awareness is post-DOS, post-Basic. and post-hand-written essays and the other things you describe.

    The window you describe is not just based upon age, but on cultural engagement. The latter is of course influenced by the former, but also by other factors (socio-economic, occupational, educational, cognitive style and so on).

  3. Marc Prensky is obviously not a native – his website, even his blog is not interactive – the contact page has a SNAIL MAIL address! and an email address – not even a mailto: link, let alone a text field.

    Having read his essay, I think he is missing a fundamental point – where did this digital technology come from, I wonder, if not from those he gives the blanket name “digital immigrants” (because it’s not a continuum, yeah? it’s a “discontinuity”) ? And why has it become so ubiquitous? Because it evolved organically, guided by the pre-existing cognitive competencies of those who designed and first began to use it. Because it is designed to take advantage of pre-existing cognitive architecture, not because it is a radical departure from it! Otherwise, it would never have taken off.

    It’s a nice metaphor, the notion of the digital “language”, but this man is so far up his own IEEE port, all I can see is the size of his hard-drive.

  4. Yeah, his website is sooo web 1.0 its unbelieveable.

    Don’t be too hasty to judge the concepts though. What he is claiming is, that despite the fact that the tools have been created by people who think in the ‘old’ way, these tools have in some sense transcended the thought processes that created them, and allowed new thinking in individuals not so used to the old thinking.

    it will be interesting to see the kind of computers and games created by Digital Natives, and how they differ from those developed by the vanguard.

  5. Well, this is exactly it. The new tools were designed to employ existing thought-processes specifically because such tools, employing such thought-processes were the most useful, effective etc etc. Rather than “allowing” “new” thinking, in individuals not so used to the “old” thinking, their ubiquitous use has simply caused the old thinking to fall out of use. Rather than “new thinking”, all that has happened is a shift in the balance between different types of thinking. Big wow.

    The hungry.com example is not believable, is not referenced or supported in any way, is not a parsimonious use of language, and is presented out of context, so its motivation and meaning is unclear. It tells us nothing, apart from the fact that domain names are common in our language now. Big wow.

    What is more “interesting” is what has happened to people’s attention-spans. Having a short attention span is not a new way of thinking though. It’s an impoverished way of thinking. Although I’m all for innovative and even implicit teaching, edutainment as he calls it, at the forefront of human knowledge are concepts, ideas, and logic that require a minimum span of attention to grasp, let alone to critique or to build upon.

    Furthermore, any generational change in “thinking styles” cannot be solely attributed to the “digital revolution” (an umbrella term if ever there was one), when this is not by any means the only thing that has changed over time. It’s multi-factorial, over-determined, and I find his argument rather simplistic. I could almost forgive it, if it wasn’t from a Digital Immigrant (judging by his website), who really should know better.

    I’m reminded somewhat of the David Cameron binary analogue-digital dichotomy (you can put in the URI to that post if you like) – it’s clear what camp he’s in…

  6. That is quit an AMAZING ARTICLE- well the KEYWORD was SINCLAIR and the TIMING was IMMACULATE- as I myself was writing something and I did EMBOSS THE IMAGE of SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM my first COMPUTER- 48 Kb and then got a 128 KB with a HEAT SINK the first GAME I played was BAT MAN THE MOVIE- with GOTHAM CITY in the END- MUSIC was out of the ORDINARY considering that one has to program with just 128 KB Memory- the I got a SINCLAIR QL with TAPE DRIVE- all this in a NATION called INDIA – well DUBBED as a 3rd WORLD COUNTRY…..THAT IS AN ALL FOOLS DAY JOKE INDEED isnt’t – as it is MENTAL DEVELOPMENT that what COUNTS. Good ARTICLE keep it going…..

  7. Rather than “allowing” “new” thinking, in individuals not so used to the “old” thinking, their ubiquitous use has simply caused the old thinking to fall out of use. Rather than “new thinking”, all that has happened is a shift in the balance between different types of thinking. Big wow.

    A very interesting point Clarice. We need to guard that the ‘old’ language doesn’t fall out of use like Latin.

    I do think the ‘new’ thinking has many positive aspects though. Lateral thinking, and connections between disparate ideas from different disciplines, should become easier for a generation used to clicking hyperlinks!

  8. Well, I’m not sure that Latin is the best example of “old” “language” as MP uses the term. Although I think Latin is useful, it’s fallen out of use because so many people can do without it, or are happy to. The practical effect of the loss of Latin will be I think minimal, but on the more abstract level, it will involve the loss of a certain richness of thought about language and its evolution, though I think that can probably be found or replaced by different (“new”) content.

    I still don’t think that lateral thinking and non-linear thinking and connections between different disciplines constitute “new” thinking. They are not in any sense new. These are all exactly the kinds of thinking that have led to ALL human developments in science, technology and so on. They do depend for their usefulness, however, on a balance with “old” thinking – if too much old thinking is lost, the benefits of the “new” will be pretty limited. It is my belief that we betray the “net-gen” by allowing them to lose so much “old” thinking, and leaving them with impoverished attention spans and cognitive skills.

    Clicking hyperlinks is a reflection of what our brains like to do, and of how we think. It is not a device that especially “changes” how we think, unless we over-use it. I believe the relation between the internet and our minds is like that of television, or a dictionary. Television both reflects our lives and culture, and perpetuates/constrains it. Dictionaries do the same for our language. And the information superhighway does the same for our thought processes. Double-edged sword in all cases.

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