Bridging Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants
Ten years ago this fall, Marc Prensky announced a revolution in education. In his 2001 essay, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," he argued that as Western culture shifted to digital communication in the last years of the twentieth-century, a divide opened between the older "Digital Immigrants" newly arrived in the wired world, and the young "Digital Natives" born and raised in this new frontier. With the rise of the internet, Prensky argued, came a generation gap wider than the usual one that exists between the young and their befuddled parents; as technology, media culture, and the Internet ruled the day, young people who grew up in the new environment began to "think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors." According to Prensky, the Digital Natives are steeped in and perfectly adapted to life in the new world which for their parents, the Digital Immigrants, remains to some extent an unfamiliar environment. Prensky's famous essay is a call to educators to respond to the observation that "Digital-Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language"—and that education, as a consequence, is an "old-world" construct incapable of seizing the attention or stimulating the minds of a population reared in the "new world."
Whether it has been the sea change Prensky writes about is a point of some disagreement, of course. Some argue that it is in our nature to lack historical perspective, to enlarge what is immediately in front of us, and to believe that our own moment eclipses all that came before it. But what may be different in this case is that everybody seems to be saying this about the past twenty years, not just young people caught up in the excitement of their hour, and so in any case it might as well be true. As the story goes, the cultural landscape has been radically altered within a very short time, the standard generational twenty years having brought the Internet, smartphones, social networking, YouTube celebrity, etc. As a result, there is a wider gulf between the native environments of the high-school and university students of today and those of the late Baby Boomer and Generation X parents who raised them. It really does seem sometimes like a singularity, a revolutionary break from the old world and the sudden imposition of an unrecognizable new one.
Technological change is nothing new, of course (we have been here before, courtesy of the Gutenbergs, the Edisons, the Bells, etc.), and neither are revolutionary shifts in values and prevailing ideas. But the two together seem to have scrambled intergenerational communication a bit more than usual; Prensky's immigrants, especially when they are educators, often stare backward mournfully at the vanishing world of the past while the natives stare only forward, rejecting the lessons and value of history, emboldened in such singularly futurist thinking by a media and advertising culture desperate for their attention and their gadget dollar. There are exceptions to both of these rules, naturally, but by and large these two generations do sometimes seem to speak radically different languages, and they value entirely different things.
On closing the generation gaps of history and managing the death of "contemporary forms of social order," Aleksandr Herzen wrote in the nineteenth century that "what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass." With revolutionary change, then, comes not a clean, straightforward handoff of dominance from the overthrown to the inheritors of power, but an uneasy interregnum, a period of adaptation to the new order before it is quite fully in place. The call that Prensky made a decade ago to educators to end their "grousing" and accept and begin adapting to the new order was an attempt to close the gap Herzen describes, to induce labour in the pregnant widow and complete the shift to the ostensibly inevitable technological future.
The good news, however, is that in this case there are intermediaries, regents tending to the office as the heir is made ready for the post. In Herzen's terms, they function as midwives and nurses. In Prensky's terms, they work like immigration-officer go-betweens, smoothing the transition for new arrivals, and helping to dovetail old with new. In terms of technology itself, they operate like an interface, the device that can translate the movements of a hand into those of a mouse pointer on a screen.
I was born in 1976. The world at the time included computers, but they had only recently shrunk from great warehouse-sized beasts into things consumers could own, and most people didn't have one. I didn't spend my early childhood with a computer in front of me, and I had only a vague science-fiction sense of them. My father brought home a Commodore 64 when I was 9 or 10 years old, and this was the first computer I got to use myself. I played games on it, and I borrowed books on BASIC programming from the library to help me create primitive programs of my own. It was a thrilling new world for me, to be sure, but it was still a tiny one compared to the wired world a nine- or ten-year-old child encounters today: this was an isolated machine (modems existed for them, but my family didn't have one, and there were only boring bulletin-board systems to access anyway), and it was anything but user-friendly. Turn on a Commodore 64 and all you see is a "READY" prompt and a blinking cursor—no icons, no tooltips, no help documentation, nothing to orient you. Prompt notwithstanding, it all made you feel quite unready indeed. To make any use of these machines was to be by contemporary standards something of a specialist, and most certainly to be on your own.
My first encounter with the internet was when I was seventeen years old, in 1993. I was at the home of an acquaintance whose affluent family were always early-adopters of new technologies, and their most recent adoption was a dial-up internet connection on a second telephone line. We looked at a couple of business websites and other things his father had bookmarked in Netscape Navigator, and while none of the information itself was especially interesting to me, the idea itself seemed momentous: to have a pandect of information just a few keystrokes away was a revelation. I didn't get my own regular access to the internet until a couple of years later at university, but in the meantime, like everybody else at the time, I was spellbound by the idea of an information commons, and of immediate exchange of ideas between the like-minded.
But I saw this advent with the strange combination of both youthfully giddy eyes and a print-culture mindset cultivated by my 1980s education. By the time I saw the internet for the first time in 1993, I'd only ever read a book in the original Book 1.0, Dead Trees Edition. I knew how to use a card catalogue in the library. My music collection was on CDs and a few lingering mixes on old TDK cassettes, and the whole lot certainly didn't fit in my pocket. I'd never owned a mobile phone, of course—in fact, nobody I'd ever met while I was growing up had one, and though they existed, they were either the laughable bricks still seen in 1980s period comedies, or they were permanently installed in rich people's cars. I was thus without cell phone or iPod, and apart from an hour here and there doing homework or playing games, I was almost never at a computer. If I was out with friends and wanted to know something, I had no way of looking it up. I had to make a mental note to look into it later, and wait not just until I got home, but until I could ask a teacher or someone else in the know, or else look it up in print sources in the library.
In short, then, I received the same education and ultimately the same values as Prensky's "Digital Immigrants," but the alignment of my date of birth and the rise of the internet meant that I was young and hungry just as the famous technological revolution was happening. I was part of an evanescent generation that had the benefit of both immersion in the new world and a firm grounding in the old one.
Now, I'm a thirty-five year old university instructor, and I'm confronted with Prensky's controversial challenge of a decade ago. My classroom is full of his Digital Natives, and it is my job to find ways to communicate with them, and to unite the old world and the new, adapting print-culture content for the consumption of net-culture minds so that it won't die on the e-altar. And indeed this isn't always simple and straightforward.
According to one recent study, my students spend, on average, seven and a half hours a day consuming media content—consuming, in the end, almost 11 hours of content when you consider "multitasked" channels of input separately. One in three of them sends and receives more than 100 text messages a day, and 75% of them have a cell phone. Most of their bedrooms contain a TV, and nearly all of them contain a computer or two. They have turned out more or less exactly how Prensky imagined they would a decade ago, when today's first-year students were just eight years old. Their world is one that the designers of the traditional education system could not have imagined and certainly weren't prepared for, a submoronic hive-mind in which the presiding authority is not authority at all but, as Mark Bauerlein argued in The Dumbest Generation, the intense and inescapable presence of peerthink itself: the social panopticon, the media obsession and other centripetal tugs of youth consciousness, and above all the self-reinforcing obsession with and dependence upon what comes in ones and zeroes.
This is how the natives live in the new tech landscape. Now think about how the way the immigrants live in this world, the ones who designed the curricula in place in most schools, who raised the natives and in many cases the natives' parents. They're the fastest growing segment of the Facebook population, but just think of the way many of them use it. When they post comments on their children's status updates, they often start with "Hi sweetie," and end with "Love, Mom," just like they did when writing letters by hand. We wince as they SOMETIMES WRITE IN ALL-CAPS, JUST AS THEIR FIRST COMPUTERS IN THE 1980S ALWAYS DID. We cringe at their candour and guilelessness. We watch as they derail comment threads with interjected reminders to pick up milk on the way home from school. We hear in these immigrants' digital voices what Prensky described as the "accent," the vestiges of old-world language. Some immigrants have adapted rather well to the new speech, but they have all done so long after their own habits, worldview, and values have formed, and as Prensky says, "a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain."
But the Interface folks were still figuring themselves out when all of this began, and we learned both ways of speaking in parallel, on user-unfriendly computers and with stacks of old books piled on our desks beside them. All adolescents work at trying to integrate themselves into the world that surrounds them, but people born a few years on either side of me were tasked with integrating themselves into two worlds, and in engaging that task, we cultivated two sets of intuitions about language, communication and culture. Translation between the idioms of stone tablets and iPad tablets is more natural for this "Interface Generation" than it is for those on either side of them, and it shows. My students often find my world baffling, but I'm not baffled by theirs, and I'm still at home in the one I inherited myself—I'm as good on my iPhone as they are on theirs, and yet I'm as committed to the value of the traditional book as the most curmudgeonly antiquarian.
The students Prensky saw coming in 2001 have arrived, and so has the world of parallel processes, random access, instant gratification and reward that he predicted. The old social order lay on its deathbed, or at least so say many, and Herzen's long night of chaos and desolation has thus begun. It does look as if we need new ways of speaking and teaching, or at least to consider ways of honing the ones we have, as Prensky said we would a decade ago, and many of us are already well on our way to linking the wires. The people forming the Interface have a vital responsibility in this process, because they represent a bridge between the departing world and that of the unborn heir. There will never be another generation that was young when they were young and the game was changing, and that is info-bilingual in a world of info-monoglots. They will have to complete the act of translation and soon, before, for better or worse, the old world is taken offline completely.