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For a while I have been recoiling at all that talk about how young people today are "born digital" or are part of some special or distinct experiential universe that grants them special prowess or powers and blinds them to other things (like, say, books).

I don't buy it for one minute.

Partly, I resist such talk because I don't think that "generations" are meaningful social categories. Talking about "Generation X" as if there were some discernable unifying traits or experiences that all people born between 1964 and pick a year after 1974 is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns share some trait or experience. Yes, today one-twelfth of the world will "experience trouble at work but satisfaction in love." Right.

Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.

In the case of the "digital generation," the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

And besides, I have spent more than a decade in the constant company of people 18 to 23 years old. The faces change. The age range does not. I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly in every class. Yet it has not changed in more than 10 years. Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number of people who can't stand computers at all. A few every year lack mobile phones. Many can't afford any gizmos and resent assignments that demand digital work. Most use Facebook and Myspace because they are easy, not because they are powerful (which, of course, they are not).

College students in America just are not as digital as we might want to pretend. And even at elite universities, many are not rich enough to be all that digital. Like the rest of us, they will use a tool if the tool works for them and they can afford it. If not, then not.

All this mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that "kids won't read books" is just crap. They read books when there is a payoff. And they all (I mean all) tell me that they like the technology. They just don't like the price.

Henry Jenkins has issues as well:

... Talk of "digital natives" helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of "digital natives" may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.


Talking about digital natives also tends to make these changes all about digital media rather than encouraging us to think about the full range of media platforms which shape the world around us or for that matter, the complex set of relationships between old and new media that characterize convergence culture. The digital may be what feels new to us who are of older generations but it isn't as if these young people were exclusively interacting through digital platforms.

Talking about digital natives and digital immigrants tends to exagerate the gaps between adults, seen as fumbling and hopelessly out of touch, and youth, seen as masterful. It invites us to see contemporary youth as feral, cut off from all adult influences, inhabiting a world where adults sound like the parents in the old Peanuts cartoons -- whah, whah, whah, whah -- rather than having anything meaningful to say to their offspring. In the process, it disempowers adults, encouraging them to feel helpless, and thus justifying their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world.

In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there's a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.

As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won't be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won't be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky's original formulation, now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations. ...


Comments (6)

Steve Cisler on December 6, 2007 7:20 PM:

I reviewed a book by Don Tapscott a long time ago (http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_4/reviews/index.html) and his insistence on young people being a new breed, naturally at ease with this technology, annoyed me then, and now.

(no names, please) on December 7, 2007 11:26 AM:

Wow. I really hate generational profiling, too. But this is the first time I've heard comments about the fundamental classist assumptions about these practices -- that it's the better-off kids who are articulating the parameters of their generation.

Given your long engagement with youth, I'd be interested in hearing about any changes in cognition that you've observed over time with digital media users. What kinds of habits of mind , if any, do these devices foster?

Siva Vaidhyanathan on December 7, 2007 12:33 PM:

I don't have any clear observations about cognitive changes among young people over time, largely because I have been changed as much and as fast by digital technologies as they have.

I am sure someone has done real work on this question. If anyone knows of any, please let us know.

Your lead in to Jenkins' thoughts is exactly what I've been struggling to articulate...thank you so much for such a clear and cogent post.

Andy Havens on December 10, 2007 6:05 PM:

I agree. Especially with this:

"Talking about digital natives also tends to make these changes all about digital media rather than encouraging us to think about the full range of media platforms which shape the world around us..."

I teach History of Advertising one night a week to design students at the Columbus College of Art and Design; I have for six years, now. While many of them are great at specific craft programs (Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, etc.), many are also less media and tech savvy overall than my co-workers, who are mostly in their 30's - 50's. Depends on the kid, the background and the choices. Same as it ever was.

Jonathan Gray on December 10, 2007 11:44 PM:

A weird thing happened to me this year -- I've been feeling like I'm more and more behind technically. Probably because I've been listening to much of the talk of the digital generation, etc, etc. So I've been boning up, learning more, reading blogs, Facebooking, and, perhaps most importantly, attending conferences at MIT ;-) Then I set foot into my classroom (of predominantly upper middle class kids, btw), and started showing off my new vocabulary. I thought they might greet it like I do when my mum uses the word "groovy" while trying to be hip. Instead, I was confusing the heck out of most of them. "What's BitTorrent?" "How's that work?" "Veoh?" "Professor, what's a trackback?" So, while I share your frustrations of hearing such "digital generation" rhetoric when it outright excludes those who ain't invited to the digital party, I found that even many of those who are invited don't know the directions, and really don't like or know the style of dancing that's happening once they get there

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This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

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Is Google a Library? (43 posts)

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Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)

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Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)


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