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Are you a Digital Native?

I thought I was. I was born January 9th, 1980. I missed the 70s by just nine days.

I love technology. I was luckiest 6 year-old kid in he world when my uncle gave the family a Commodore 64 for Xmas. I programmed in BASIC. I was in chat-rooms on Prodigy and CompuServe. I played in Multi-User Doors (MUDs) on local direct dial-up bulletin board systems before I even knew what the Internet was.

I thought that I was a Digital Native.

I’m an active participant in “online culture”. I can name every YouTube reference in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video. I get ALL of my news online and I own a television almost exclusively for the purposes of watch media that comes to me across the Internet. I conduct 80% of my professional life online and maintain only the fuzziest of boundaries between my work and play time. I multi-task. I transition between IM, SMS, email, telephone, and face-to-face seamlessly. I Facebook. I Myspace. I Flickr. I LinkedIn. I Wiki. I YouTube. I twitter (sort-of). I code a little.

I thought that I was a Digital Native, but I am not.

When I twitter, I often do it alone. (I’m more enamored with the concept than the practical application.) Although IM has become an indispensable tool for getting work done and telecommuting, most of my friends and family are not usually logged in. Aside from email, most forms of online communications never gained enough a critical mass in my age bracket to endure past our extended adolescence. My Skype window sits idle, displaying a grey-out contacts displaying ghostly reminders of my fleeting online social life.

With much enthusiasm and the best of intentions, I try to co-ordinate social events and camping trips with friends using online calendars, forums, social networks, or email lists. But more often than I think is reasonable, I need to resort to the phone to really make things happen. Most of my people just don’t live online.

I am not a Digital Native, but I would like to be.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with technology and it’s potential for creating change. My age bracket, generally speaking, has not shared this interest with me. True Digital Natives have a mainstream culture of online connectivity. My interest in digital technology has been exploratory and forward thinking, and placed parts of my life-style on the geeky fringes of American culture.

I’m probably more tech-savy than most Digital Natives today, yet I am not one of them. The Digital Natives around me have been shaped by a totally mainstream digital lifestyle, a norm that enables allows them to digitally communicate and collaborate with their peers with ease. Their habits have been formed by their lifetimes of digital communication and complete immersion in digital spaces.

In contrast, my lifetime has been a lifetime of waiting. Waiting for the digital spaces held in the collective imagination to come online. Now that the early, early alphas of the meta-verse are here, I am shocked that my peers aren’t rushing in to them as I always imagined. It’s too late for me. I missed the 70s by nine days. I just realized that I missed the life-style I’ve always imagined would come by about a decade.

I adore the Internet. The possibilities that are provided for by massive digital collaboration and open access to information are the single biggest factor in my having any hope of a brighter future for the human species. (Clay Shirky’s talk on excess cognitive capacity gives me chills.) I wish that my generation was going to play a major role in that imagined future. …But sadly, I will have to go it mostly alone because their embrace of life-changing technological innovation seems to have stopped at Tivo.

John Randall

UPDATE 2008.08.04: More on the term “Digital Native” here.