The Natives

There is an interesting exchange going on between Siva Vaidhyanathan of the Googlization of Everything and Jeff Gomez of Print is Dead concerning the vexed issue of digital natives. The theory goes like this: a generation has grown up since the late seventies surrounded by digital technology with which it is at ease and has mastery over. Specifically this is the generation that spearheaded the mass appeal of the internet, who cannot remember offices before email (just how did they work?), who were the first on social networking sites, who spent their teenage evenings chatting on MSN messenger and now consume their media, from music to magazines to TV, through their wirelessly connected laptops and iPhones. Gomez argues that the evolved media environment in which this switched on generation (x, y, digital natives, generation download or whatever you want to call it) has created/stemmed from necessitates the transition of publishing into digital media. This position was challenged by Vaidhyanathan who proposed a more nuanced understanding of "digital natives", arguing that use and comfort with technology could not be segmented into generational terms and that each generation was composed of varying proportions of technophiles and phobes encompassing the entire spectrum inbetween. In Vaidhyanathan's opinion a 16 year old is not necessarily more at ease with Youtube and camera phones than a sixty year old. When you were born is not, for Vaidhyanathan, the sole determinant of your cultural disposition; history cannot be simplified into generational generalisations.

Gomez in turn argued that there was a distinct shift, a shift that he claimed extended not only to digital or technological arguments. He used the example of shopping malls: in the wake of mall shootings malls were often seen by American teenagers as dangerous places in contrast to his own generation for whom they were sanctuaries. Likewise with digital media- as you move down the generations there are very tangible distinctions in attitudes towards the use of technology. Responding Vaidhyanathan reaffirmed his belief that using broad historical brush strokes was a futile exercise.

It seems to be that the truth of this lies somewhere in the middle ground (as usual). Vaidhyanathan is surely right when he says "In the case of the "digital generation," the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious." Generation Download is hardly a global phenomena and even within developed countries there are likely to be differences. Any kind of homogenising argument of the kind proffered by Gomez will always fall to numerous counter examples, and the anecdotes provided by Vaidhyanathan, of many older colleagues being far more technologically minded than students, do have the ring of truth. There are still friends of mine who refuse to join facebook.

However I nonetheless feel that Gomez has a point, that there is a sense of difference in stance between the sixteen and sixty year old, that the generation in the twenties or younger is not just more at home with technology, as a general rule, but fundamentally relies on that technology for entertainment and the ordering of their lives. Every month it becomes harder to co-ordinate a social life without being on facebook. This is not true for for most fifty year olds; it is for most students. What I think we can say is that there is a generation with a proportionally higher level of technology and digital media integration, which can give a chimerical sense of a homogeneous mastery of all things tech. There is a gradation, a preponderance, rather than a gulf.

Schools are now investing in the so called Classroom of the Future and I have it on good authority that print books are actively discouraged in this environment. It seems that if there is no such thing as generation of digital natives than educational policy apparachiks are determined to create one.