Digital divide

Digital natives are everywhere, and they are restless.

Their fingers tap furiously on tiny keys, their eyes and ears fixated on moving images and sound. They prefer text messaging, game playing and Internet social talk to reading books or - imagine - writing letters by hand.

This is the generation weaned on the paper-free, wireless world spawned by technology’s advances, a new tribe of humans that is the focus of concern - and reams of studies - by so-called digital immigrants striving to understand natives’ behavior.

Digital immigrants include parents and anyone who didn’t grow up with digital technology - computers, the Internet, cell phones and the iPod. The terms aren’t new - media mogul Rupert Murdoch called himself a digital immigrant when speaking three years ago at a newspaper editors convention - but discussion about the generational split is proliferating.

Experts, too, are split in their views of the phenomenon.

The subject has become something of a minor industry. There are books - titles such as Douglas Rushkoff’s 1996 volume “Playing the Future,” also published as “Screenagers: Lessons in Chaos From Digital Kids,” and Marc Prensky’s “Don’t Bother Me Mom - I’m Learning” in 2006 - and even an international online academic research project (www.digitalnative.org) that explores the “digital media landscape” and its implications.

Then there are seminars, such as the ongoing four-lecture Library of Congress series in the John W. Kluge Center, which began April 7 with child development expert Edith K. Ackermann discussing “The Anthropology of Digital Natives.” The series concludes June 30 with a talk by Mr. Rushkoff, a teacher of media theory at New York University.

Ms. Ackermann, a visiting scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke almost affectionately of young people’s affinity for sharing, “even before they think,” and their “fascination with freedom,” defined, in part, as having “the ability to do the right thing even when they have not got all the knowledge.” Because of their affinity for texting and borrowing sources available widely on the Internet and social networking sites, she concluded that “the gap between reading and writing is closing down.”

“Much can be learned from today’s and yesterday’s children,” asserted Mr. Prensky, an independent consultant and games specialist who was present that day. He is an upbeat voice, encouraging puzzled parents and educators to embrace the natives on the latter’s own ground. Mr. Rushkoff, meanwhile, has grown critical in some ways about the trend. Both men are fathers of 3-year-old children they say already are familiar with electronic gizmos.

“Games are a natural teaching mechanism. The games kids play in stores are very complex,” Mr. Prensky explains in an interview, citing the message contained in the best-selling book “Everything Bad Is Good for You” by Steven Johnson, a writer in residence at New York University. (Mr. Johnson lectured at the library on May 12.)

Even TV shows such as ABC’s “Lost” “demand some intellectual power,” Mr. Prensky notes. “Our [digital immigrant] generation was brought up thinking information was power to keep to your chest. Kids think sharing is power - putting it on the blog as soon as you know it.

“And where so much of society used to be top down, it is getting more balanced from the bottom up,” he says. “The message is slowly getting out: It’s kids teaching themselves with a teacher’s guidance. Things have to be from ‘the sage onstage’ to ‘the guide on the side.’ … One of the differences that today’s kids know is they are world citizens and can communicate with people around the world as their birthright. And unless adults respect the kids, they will never get respect from the kids.”

That’s when teaching fails, along with students’ attention span, he believes.

He urges parents to be nonjudgmental and to keep in mind that their children “clearly have the capacity for intense experiences - just not for the old ways of doing stuff.” But there is a fine line for a parent between how to share and how to lead, he agrees. Reading and math concepts should be taught, at least for a while, he says, “but perhaps not the ability to tell time.” More attention should be paid to what we need to know in the future because the power of technology, he says, “is doubling every year.”

“MySpace and Facebook are extremely constrained environments,” Mr. Rushkoff counters. “My sanguine hope for digital culture in the early days has been tempered by the ease and facility with which corporations have taken a role. … Originally I was seen as a strident optimist; now I’m considered a cautionary pessimist. It is how the landscape has shifted.”

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