Blog Post

The challenge

OK, I'm sure many people saw yesterday's New York Times article, "Texting, Surfing, Studying?" (apologies if the link doesn't work - it's in the Health section, 18 and Under). Once again, the question of multitasking and whether younger people are better at it is raised. The article points out early on (and pretty heavily) that we just don't know. Then it goes on into good old journalistic speculation and anecdote.

Oh, well.

But about halfway down, we suddenly see that terrible terminology: digital immigrants / digital natives. Bad Times! Bad, bad Times! Those of us who are immersed in both technology and academe, regardless of our age or generational affiliation, know better than to use these terms; if you search here in HASTAC you'll find (among a few other denunciations) Cathy Davidson saying: "I agree completely that 'digital native' is a weird term. I look forward to its passing into irrelevancy." Hear, hear!

It's not just a "weird" term - it's misleading and (at least to me) offensive, on more than one level. I won't get into that here, though you can feel free to ask me - just beware when you open that can of worms.

No, what I want to point out here is that we, as humanists of the digital variety, are the ones who can effect that change. If we agree that "digital native" and "digital immigrant" are at best not useful terms, then shouldn't we come up with terms that are useful? We're in the humanities, and this is a question about people. Clearly the sciences aren't concerned with a solution, otherwise there'd be one already. Popular culture, especially the press, has latched onto these terms as a facile shorthand, linguistic and social consequences be damned.

No one's going to step up and send these terms into "irrelevancy" unless we do it. I hereby put out the challenge.

And it's not just an idle thought exercise. Those people (like my mom) who accept themselves as "digital immigrants" are, among other things, giving in to stereotypes that excuse their lack of comfort with technology and may even promote technophobia or, at worst, Ludditism. And some kids who are growing up with the label "digital native" think they are smarter and otherwise superior simply because their thumbs move faster than their parents'; never mind that they don't know what a server is, have never heard of ASCII or machine language, and often can barely use out-of-the-box software like MS-Office.

At least as importantly, the native / immigrant dialectic is (aside from its unfortunate linguistic heritage) a false one. Because they didn't grow up surrounded by technology (an accident of timing, not interest), many of the people who invented, distribute, or otherwise provide today's technologies would be considered digital immigrants. Honestly, something's amiss when you think about that.

And we haven't even gotten to the way that this false dialectic neatly elides the very real digital divide, creating a world composed only of people with access to technology who are defined only by whether they were born before or after a ubiquity that doesn't even really exist.

So how about it, digital humanists? Can we do better? Should we even bother to categorize relationships with technology? And if so, how can we go about doing so in a more intelligent manner?


1 comment

Actually, Bola, I think one way to approach this might be to actually look at this "unfortunate linguistic heritage," as you call it, and maybe ask if it isn't our aversion to these phrases to start with that is the problem. Maybe these terms can be more useful than we initially think in that they ask us to overcome our ambivalence to the language and its history.  To go back a bit, the terms “native” and “immigrant” speak to practices of exclusion and xenophobia and an embarassingly long history of exclusionary immigration laws (especially in the U.S.) that were meant to keep out objectionable immigrants of different races, genders, nationalities, etc. "Native" was good, "immigrant" was bad. Not much seems to have changed. Today, the words “digital native” and “digital immigrant” reveal an inherent fear and embarrassment that I think we may all feel upon entering a new space like the Internet, or the ease with which some feel younger generations do, but perhaps of these terms “digital native” is the more misguided and unnecessary. No one, afterall, is born with the knowledge of Twitter, or CSS, or Java. We’re all “digital immigrants,” and that’s OK.

In my opinion, if by labeling myself a “digital immigrant” I can motivate myself to learn what I need to navigate the interwebs and participate in different social networks the way my parents learned to navigate the U.S. cultural and social systems, then the usage of these labels can actually serve very valuable and practical purposes.