Thursday, 6 August 2009

Forget digital natives/immigrants. We need a better metaphor

My esteemed colleague Doug Clow has just posted a very thoughtful blog post about the glib terminology we use to describe different degrees of familiarity with technology.

I think we should stop talking about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” altogether. It’s unhelpful and unclear. A better distinction might be between “digital residents” and “digital tourists”.

I’ve never liked the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant”, as introduced/popularised by Prensky, and the “born digital” idea as applied to people (rather than, say, media artefacts) is profoundly problematic. I’m not the first or only person to raise this – lots of people have criticised it. (And with very flaky Internet access at the moment, I can’t link to or cite to them … which is a bit annoying but saves me the bother – good job this isn’t a proper academic paper.)

He cites four reasons for disliking the 'native/immigrant' dichotomy:

1. Moral issues in "appropriating language about indigenous people and human migration".
2. The fact that the categories are not fixed in generational terms: "as is widely attested, there are plenty of retired-age people who have great facility with digital technologies, and spent large amounts of time online, and plenty of teenagers who struggle with them and find them overwhelming and alienating".
3. The fact that the 'native/immigrant' terminology "attributes inherent, unchangability to one’s approach and use of technology. One cannot aspire or attempt to become a digital native: one either is or one isn’t. There are plenty of people who come to digital fluency at a later stage in life than infancy."
4. It sets up "an insurmountable barrier of incomprehension between teachers (by definition digital immigrants) and learners (by definition digital natives)".

I'm with him on #2 through #4. #1 seems a bit, well, wet somehow.

Doug suggests that we think in terms of 'digital residents' and 'digital tourists'. I think that's much more insightful and productive. In fact, having just come back from Provence, a part of the world I love but in which I never participate fully because of my limited linguistic and cultural knowledge, I can see exactly why some people feel uncertain and unsure of themselves in cyberspace. They're tourists in that space, whereas I'm a resident.

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