MIT professor Henry Jenkins is one of several bloggers who have criticized the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant metaphor in recent weeks. Jenkins argues the metaphor oversimplifies and exaggerates generational distinctions, in the process letting adults “off the hook” for getting involved with technology and how kids use it.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jenkins discuss these concerns, along with many other issues, on stage with two other brilliant luminaries: Katie Salen, a game designer and professor at the Parsons School of Design, and Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard School of Education.

When Jenkins’s “native/immigrant” critique came up, Gardner responded that though the metaphor may be used simplistically, it still has value. “There’s clearly a difference between people who use these things easily and naturally and reflexively, and people for whom everything has to be translated into kind of another language.”

Jenkins acknowledged this, with what struck me as the ideal point of view.

“Metaphors are powerful things. They allow us to see some things clearly and they blind us to other things. And so I’m not saying we should throw out the metaphor and what it allows us to talk about. I’m saying we should constantly interrogate the metaphor for what it blinds us to seeing.”

Indeed. All along with this project, we’ve made a point to continually search for nuance and question our assumptions. In that spirit, over the next few days I’ll be writing more here about some of the questions that have been raised, both at last night’s forum, and in the blogosphere.

That said, I should make clear that the debate over metaphors constituted only a small part of an extremely fascinating 90 minutes, spanning a multitude of topics such as online ethics, cyber-bullying, media literacy, games, commercialism, curricula, and more. Video and audio of the forum is available from the Global Kids’ Digital Media Initiative blog, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Although there was way too much great material at the forum to cover it all on this blog, I do plan to write more about Katie Salen’s ideas about gaming’s social and educational aspects. I found them perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole evening, largely because the subject is one I was hardly aware of coming in.

In the meantime, what do you think of our much-maligned metaphor? Does it oversimplify, or simplify just enough? In Jenkins’s words, what does it show us, and what does it blind us to? Sound off in comments!

Jesse Baer

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