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Digital natives
January 13, 2013 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm having a bit of a friendly argument with a friend about "digital natives" and nature vs nurture, and I was hoping you'd be able helps us elucidate who's right or if we are both wrong. Related bibliography would be appreciated too.

Side A says that "digital natives" are born with an intrinsic ability to use technology due to their parents use of it during their life. For example, a 3-year old is able to use a tablet without much problem because he was born with the ability to use it. A kid born into this family would be able to find things in Google faster than a kid born in a previous generation. Relatedly, a child born into a multigenerational family farm would be born with an intrinsic ability to work on a farm.

Side B says that "digital natives" are the result of privilege and the luck of being exposed to technology early in life. The reason why a 3-year old is able to use a tablet is because it's intuitive to use and it does things when touched, like every other children toy. A kid born into this family wouldn't intuitively know how to search in google any better than any other kid unless he learned by practice or was taught how to do it.
posted by Memo to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Side A says that "digital natives" are born with an intrinsic ability to use technology due to their parents use of it during their life. .... Relatedly, a child born into a multigenerational family farm would be born with an intrinsic ability to work on a farm.

Side B says that "digital natives" are the result of privilege and the luck of being exposed to technology early in life.
These are identical arguments.
posted by deanc at 6:03 PM on January 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


These both sound like nurture to me. Can you elaborate on the differences?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:03 PM on January 13, 2013


Wait, is Side A literally arguing that parents who use technology have children that know how to use technology from birth? As in, the children are genetically predisposed to use technology? Because if that's the argument, then it's an example of a Lamarckian model of evolution. While recent research in epigenetics suggests that some genes can be activated by events in a parent's life, Lamarckianism has generally been debunked.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:03 PM on January 13, 2013 [30 favorites]


Side A sounds a bit nuts to me. The idea is that somehow, after the internet, children's brains changed in the womb and they were born primed to understand modern tech?

I'd go for B, except I'd take away the part about any technology being intuitive or being like a kid's toy. Wikipedia's definition here works great (emphasis mine): A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts.

My kid was (literally) born in a hut in a poor country. But since we adopted him, he's been around tech so much that he's got a familiarity with it through exposure.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Prensky coined the term 'digital native' in this article, so that's the first place you'll want to go. Also check the other citations in that Wikipedia article, including this literature review on digital natives.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:05 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I wasn't very clear. Ragged Richard's interpretation of Side A is what I meant.
posted by Memo at 6:06 PM on January 13, 2013


I don't think you'll find any articles speaking to Side A because most folks thinking and writing about this stuff aren't arguing that at all but are closer to Side B. I think the issue of digital natives is a red herring in your argument, which is really about what Ragged Richard posted -- can our brains change that much in the womb? It sounds more like an issue of biology than digital natives.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:11 PM on January 13, 2013


Option A is very definitely not how genetics works. It's almost less plausible than acquired physical characteristics being passed along, since "being able to use a tablet" lives almost entirely in your brain, and unless there's some sort of "tech particle" which can make its way from the brain to sperm/egg, there's no actual way to transmit information directly into my progeny's brain.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:12 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I recall reading a story (I think it was posted on the blue) where some researchers went to a extremely poor/disadvantaged country and left a bunch of tablets out for children to find. The children apparently learned to use these devices pretty easily even though they, and most likely their parents, were never really exposed to modern technology.

So I think the ease in which someone can use technology is wholly dependent on how the brain is wired.
posted by littlesq at 6:17 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So would the proponent of Side A argue that a child adopted into a high-tech household immediately after being born to a low-tech farmer would have a harder time understanding technology than a child adopted into a agricultural/no tech farm family immediately having been born to a Google CEO? Because, all other things equal, that's absurd. It suggests about Side A has as much understanding of evolution as the people who think evolution is fake because they've never seen a monkey turn into a person.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:20 PM on January 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Littlesq is referring, I believe, to this great story about tablets left in Ethiopia. That's a fantastic example. This quote is great:

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”
posted by bluedaisy at 6:20 PM on January 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


It's sad to me that anyone would doubt that, or that we'd need the Ethopia story to prove it.

But no, people are not "born with" an ability to use any kind of technology. Whether they can is a result of their own exposure, and also, of course, how well the product is designed to respond to normal human exploratory behaviors, which are arguably instinctive to a greater or lesser degree.
posted by Miko at 6:30 PM on January 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


In my opinion they're both wrong. It's technology that's gotten more and more intuitive and closer and closer aligned with our natural instincts. An iPhone or tablet is understandable by any child, privileged or not.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:55 PM on January 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


The very notion of a digital native is not universally accepted. David Buckingham specifically talks about how the notion of a digital native is actually more fluid than what Prensky originally proposed.

These ideas typically overstate the differences between generations, and understate the diversity within them – the age differences within generations, as well as forms of social inequality. Many so-called digital natives or members of the digital generation are no more intensive users of digital media than many so-called digital immigrants. (p. 7) [PDF]

I have some of Buckingham's other papers which discuss this if you are interested.
posted by oflinkey at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm also aware of some serious concerns on the part of college faculty who I partner with at work. The talk about "digital natives" obscures the fact that skills across digital platforms are not evenly distributed, and that their students who can text and use social media with ease have extremely poor search skills and are relatively rudimentary users of word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, etc. They need to be taught these elaborate systems and the intellectual frameworks to use them powerfully, just like anyone else; students have suffered a lot from their instructors' presumption that they "grew up with it" and somehow magically knew how to operate all digital technology.
posted by Miko at 7:28 PM on January 13, 2013 [22 favorites]


The talk about "digital natives" obscures the fact that skills across digital platforms are not evenly distributed, and that their students who can text and use social media with ease have extremely poor search skills and are relatively rudimentary users of word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, etc.

People in the library communities I work with [often poor and rural] have similar concerns to Miko's colleagues. The idea that people who are younger and more predisposed to accept technology as a given will have a more open minded approach to new things is less problematic than the idea that younger people just know how to use stuff because they're young and fearless. There is a lot of learned behavior in cultures of institutionalized poverty (in the US which is where my expertise lies) that actively hinders the same sort of exploration and odd "tabula rasa" results that you see in the Ethiopia experiment. It's a good general myth in the way that many myths are helpful, but there are other results it leaves unexplained. Like many stories, the digital native one is useful in some circumstances and harmful in others, depends what you want to do with it.

You can google "the myth of the digital native" and find a lot of blog posts but more importantly, heavily cited papers like this one (pdf) that will give you a more rounded idea of the depth of the issue.
posted by jessamyn at 7:46 PM on January 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


There is a lot of learned behavior in cultures of institutionalized poverty (in the US which is where my expertise lies) that actively hinders the same sort of exploration and odd "tabula rasa" results that you see in the Ethiopia experiment.

Jessamyn, can you expand on this? The kids in the villages in Ethiopia were actually illiterate. Are you suggesting that if poor first graders somewhere in the rural US were given tablets, they could not teach themselves similarly, with the same kind of technology? My experience in Ethiopia (I've actually spent a little bit of time there, and not just in urban areas) is that rural illiteracy and poverty there are like nothing we'd ever see in the US. But you seem to be suggesting that gives those kids an advantage.

(I hope this isn't off-topic but does seem relevant.)
posted by bluedaisy at 7:56 PM on January 13, 2013


It doesn't necessarily mean that the Ethiopian kid has an advantage in learning to use a tablet, but that mere exposure to digital culture is not an accurate indicator of your ability to make use of it. Socioeconomic factors often play into this. For example: the Ethiopian child sees the tablet as something novel, to explore. His culture and personality supports exploration; he plays with the tablet and figures it out. A poor child in certain western subcultures may see things like that all around, but his socialization has trained him to ignore it or take it for granted, to not be curious, to not bother; and thus two people who grew up in a digital society may have very different approaches to technology and skill with it.
posted by celtalitha at 8:10 PM on January 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Side A is loopy. The children of auto mechanics aren't born knowing how to fix cars either.
posted by salvia at 8:13 PM on January 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


A more simplistic example of this conditioning: My two year old will pick up any electronic device, scroll through the applications, find the little Netflix icon, touch it, find the picture of Elmo, touch it, and start watching Sesame street. Because of her single- minded Muppet obsession, I can let her play with my phone with little worry that she will make a call or do anything else; she is too busy doing what she, at the tender age of two, is already used to doing. A familiarity with technology stemming from a particular type of exposure tends to guide one's further choices in using technology throughout life.

That said, I agree with everyone else in saying that side A makes no sense from a rational or scientific standpoint.
posted by celtalitha at 8:18 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jessamyn, can you expand on this?

Just briefly. One of the differences between dropping tablets into a place where people haven't seen them before is that they don't need to UNlearn the other things they know about the technological world in their own culture. Specifically messages like these that are learned by some and need to be unlearned to encourage more of a maker-type approach to technological use and understanding.

- This thing is expensive and if you break it you may owe someone some money, money you don't have.
- This thing is scarce and if something happens to it you may not get another so be very very careful (which can translate into timid) and keep it as pristine as you can.
- This thing belongs to someone else and if you do something wrong with it you could get in trouble with them (school, parent, job) and you need to not be in trouble.
- This thing is complicated and very high tech and you are uncomplicated and very low tech so as soon as you hit an impasse where you do not know what to do next you assume that you broke it, that it is too sophisticated for you, or that you are not smart enough to operate it.

So this is not to say "oh hey it's great to be terrifically poor because you aren't held back by your preconceived notions about technology" because of course that is not the case, not exactly. But, at the same time, the digital divide we are finding in the US, is as much a mindset (people who do not obtain computers or internet access or technological know-how even when it's available to them because they feel that it's "not for them" for many reasons of varying convincingness) as it is a literal access to things.

The citation I usually offer for this was a big dull study conducted by the IRS. They would love to have everyone doing their taxes online but they can't legally force people to do that (yet, though they are working on it) but they can incent the hell out of them. So they did this big study (which was done by a guy who later worked on the FCC telecommunications commission if I have my names right) which looked at why people don't adopt technology. Now, these people are adults, so it doesn't speak directly to the digital natives issue, but the people studied include people who "grew up with" technology. You can read more about that here" The IRS Advancing E-File Study. It's a few years old and I'm oversimplifying some and adding things I know from other places but for people who like to get really wonky with this stuff, it's a good start.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 PM on January 13, 2013 [25 favorites]


- This thing is expensive and if you break it you may owe someone some money, money you don't have.
- This thing is scarce and if something happens to it you may not get another so be very very careful (which can translate into timid) and keep it as pristine as you can.
- This thing belongs to someone else and if you do something wrong with it you could get in trouble with them (school, parent, job) and you need to not be in trouble.
- This thing is complicated and very high tech and you are uncomplicated and very low tech so as soon as you hit an impasse where you do not know what to do next you assume that you broke it, that it is too sophisticated for you, or that you are not smart enough to operate it.


Ah, this, I understand. Thanks for explaining it, and particularly your comment about the digital divide being as much a mindset as any sort of literal access. Also, I think you totally just passed on a chance to mention that you wrote a whole book about this for librarians. So I'll mention it (even though I obviously haven't read it).
posted by bluedaisy at 8:58 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Ethiopian OLPC story was a bit truth-stretched in that it was presented as "we dropped these tablets off in boxes, kids figured it all out" when the project's site describes a controlled deployment with adults from the project on hand to distribute the tablets. In other words, this wasn't just a pallet of tech dropped on a village, it was a project involving academics and regional government techies going to the village to set things up.

I don't mean to detract from their work, only that in order to draw lessons from it, you'll need to look at what the actual researchers and field techs in that project said.

posted by zippy at 2:20 AM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Side A says that "digital natives" are born with an intrinsic ability to use technology due to their parents use of it during their life.

Technology and academic studies aside, evolution does not work that way.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:10 AM on January 15, 2013


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