Digital natives, digital immigrants…

We were talking last week in my Media & Culture class about Neil Postman's views on "technopoly," the idea that technology is not only becoming a bigger part of our culture but pretty much taking it over. (More on Postman in a later post!) This led me to ask students: Do any of them get frustrated with the role that digital media like cellphones or the Internet plays in their lives? Answers were affirmative but focused on the absence of technology, not its presence: Yes, I hate it when I forget my cellphone and have to spend an hour going home for it. Yes, it's annoying when I can't get a signal, my computer is too slow, etc. The class argued against Postman's perspective but unwittingly confirmed it, universally perceiving digital media as pure boon without bane.

I started thinking, "Hey, maybe it's just me. Or maybe the difference in attitudes is generational." (Despite the fact that, in my late 30s, I'm not quite a generation older than the students.) This discussion came in the wake of our watching a PBS Frontline documentary about "Growing Up Online" that's full of scare-mongering and moral panics by parents and teachers about What The Internet Is Doing to Our Children and How Powerless We Are to Stop It (alternate online identities, soft-porn profile pictures, privacy issues, cyberstalkers and predators, etc.) The adults featured in the program made a few good points but overall their moralistic concerns seemed a little overblown, to the mind of this teaching non-parent, anyway.

One theory for undertanding this shift that the PBS producers are keen on — and that I also find useful, to a point — is that of "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants." The terms seem to be coined by Mark Prensky, who describes himself as
"an internationally acclaimed thought leader, speaker, writer,
consultant, and game designer." He says that people who were not born into the digital world but have adopted many aspects of new technology are immigrants, whereas students are native speakers of the "language" of computers, video games and the Internet. It's safe to say that I'm the latter and my students are the former.

It's also safe to say that Prensky is the anti-Postman. While they both believe, as do I, that this shift from a print culture to a televised and now digital one represents a huge discontinuity with profound consequences for education, Postman is sensibly skeptical about the presumed gains and unusually attentive to the potential losses that this brings. Prensky, on the other hand, has blind faith that the digitally molded minds of today's students represent a great leap forward for humanity. As Mao's cultural revolution proved, great leaps are not always forward-bound.