An episode of the local (for Boston) NPR show “On Point” sent around Berkman last week inspired a spirited conversation. The conversation ranged from the definitional – concern that the term Digital Natives was “relying too much on age as the determining factor of Internet and technology savviness” and the riposte that DNs are “not a generation but a population” – to the big-picture theoretical.

Detlev Matthies offered that,

To my understanding the point is the change of the society that framed the personality: the experience of the networked society of the informational age asks for a different understanding of “person” and “identity” than the industrial society did (Even though that was already information based – Manuel Castells gave a good description of this difference in his “The Rise of the networked society / Prologue: the net and the self” )

Digital Natives’ Nikki Leon added,

What I’ve found the most defining factor of Digital Native-dom is that, for Digital Natives, constant and consistent use of technology for both social and work purposes has become mainstream. For many tech-savvy Gen-Xers (some of my DN team members included), their use of the internet for networking and creative work was ahead of the curve and in some cases distanced them from their peers. For Gen-Yers like me, it’s exactly the opposite — “What do you mean you don’t have a facebook?” “I txted you to let you know I wasn’t coming, didn’t you get my msg?” “The syllabus was posted online. Don’t come into my office and tell me you didn’t know what the assignment was.”

Of course, this is a long-ongoing conversation; Henry Jenkins’ thoughts on the matter were referenced –

Talk of “digital natives” helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of “digital natives” may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides.

And John Palfrey recalled his reply to Jenkins:

In [Born Digital], we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as [Global Voices] makes possible.

I’ll throw in my US$0.02 as the last word here. We all greet the world as it comes, and the world is always changing. What one might call Digital Natives are those who are and have been coming of age in a world where increasing amounts information relating to all of our existence is continually coded and transmitted in 1s and 0s, stored and collated, swapped and correlated. The world that their children come into will by turns make this one seem clunky and primitive, but neither that nor this world is in itself a better or worse thing. Technology does not have a moral component: it is the people who use it. Technology does not do the work: it is the people who use it. Today or yesterday or tomorrow, everything is mediated through technologies – it’s different technologies, but the same humans mediating.

We should be be neither Utopian nor dystopian in our vision of today or tomorrow, but meet the world as it comes and work with our fellow humans to make it a better today and tomorrow. The most important technology for that end is communication, and while wafers of silicon do make it easier for use to communicate with more people than ever, faster than ever, we should never lose sight of the fact that the most important part of those communications are the humans on the other end of them. And to that end, we hope you will continue to participate in this conversation – these communications – with us.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

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