In the first part of this blog, I will try to explain, illustrate and also analyze this distinction. I will then argue that the labels ‘native’ and ‘immigrant’ do not always convey an accurate representation of this alleged divide. Finally, I want to critically examine the distinction from the point of view of the wider divide and show that this categorization fails to capture the complex and evolving realities in the countries where information communication technology has a lower level of penetration.
Let’s first take the distinction at face value. Mark Prensky was the first to coin these labels when he referred to twenty-first century students a ‘“native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet’. Digital immigrants, he adds, are “[T]hose of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology’. Without wanting to complicate matters, we can possibly say that what we have here is a pair of variables, one of them socio-biological, which is age, and the other one sort of linguistic, which is intuitive knowledge of and ease with the internet, computers, and other media of storage, retrieval and distribution.
Those native digilingual speakers who were born using this medium are generally aged 2-25 years. Here, I am choosing the year 1982 (2007-1982) as a cut-off point somewhat arbitrarily to sift those that were born in the era of computers and information and communications technology and those that were born before the advent of computers on a wide scale, that is those who were born before 1982. What this means is that those who were born in the past 25 years or so are native digilingual speakers. They stand in binary opposition to those who started learning digilingua just as it was evolving. Those would be the digital immigrants. They are sort of permanent learners of the medium, and as Prensky (2001) argues, they speak digilingua with an accent. This means, among other things that by the time they have started using and learning the new medium, they have already gone beyond what is called the critical period, and they will never speak digilingua like a native speaker; there will be perennial errors and imperfections in their knowledge of the language, and they will not able to develop the feel, the intuition, the ease and richness characteristic of native speakers of the language. Even their brain, Prensky’s argument goes, might be differently formed. So, if you are a person, say from Europe, North America, Japan, Korea, or Australia, and are aged forty, the label ‘digital immigrant’ applies to you. If you’re five or fifteen, you definitely are a ‘digital native’.
On to my second point about the rigor of this distinction. There is, of course room for sustaining this definition, at least for a while. Prensky makes the point that contrary to what adults would do when they purchase an electronic gadget, which is to look for the operations manual, children would in fact just hop into it. They would be able to put every cable or cord in place and start the system almost anticipating the instructions, and even without looking at them; the next logical steps sort of come naturally to them , much like native speakers who do not hesitate so much about how to use a word or continue a sentence.
Well, well, well, not quite. This distinction will appear to stand on shaky ground if think in terms of expertise. Who is more of an expert than the other? Is it the person who uses gadgetry so easily or the person who has invented this gadget? Which of the two was contemporary to technology as it was being designed, publicized, piloted, and made available on a wide scale? It wouldn’t be off the mark to claim that someone who has witnessed the rise and spread of technology might be able to better understand it than someone who just takes it for granted. Let me illustrate this idea. If we think of consciousness as a mental theater that events and things actually populate, it will be easy to see that a digital immigrant is someone who used to have certain pre-technological ways of transacting and operating. At some point, this immigrant started to realize that there were alternative ways to get things done. They then start to follow up on that, and gradually adopt and adapt some new ways. At the same time, a young person is someone whose birth came after technology invaded most facets of life. As this person’s consciousness was being formed, there was no question for them about whether or not to use the gadgetry around. By default and without the least bit of hesitation, they would just use what is on offer without questions, reservations or hesitation. In effect, it may be legitimate to claim that use and manipulation of electronic gadgetry is naturally imposed upon that person. Thus, the older person who slowly moved into adopting that technology is better framed and better placed to understand it, evaluate it and contextualize it.
Well, I don’t know. I hope I am not making this argument just to defend my position as a digital immigrant who came to adopt it deliberately and consciously. After all, I have seen many people my age who refuse to have anything to do with it. Ah, but hang on. Actually, this distinction doesn’t even apply to me. I have lived most of my life in environments where the use of internet and computers is not available on a scale as wide as it is in the technologically advanced countries. I am of course not in the business of personalizing this issue. Rather, what I want to do is to examine the distinction from a unique point of view. The first ground on which this distinction is weak stems from its limited range of applicability. What I mean by that is that it is reductionist in its categorization of reality. The world, humanity, those who have technology on a wide scale, and those who have it to an average extent, and those who have very little (if any) of it, are not included or representedin this binary opposition. It would perhaps be a more accurate description of technological reality to think about knowledge of and ease with information and communications technology as a continuum, with, at one end those for whom technology is second (or is it first) nature, and those whose knowledge is lagging very much behind at the other end. The continuum would serve to characterize individuals and not whole societies. To be sure, there are pockets of people in the technologically developed worlds who are still on the sidelines of digital revolution. They may not be many, but they are not statistically insignificant. Likewise, there are, possibly in countries with very low per capita incomes, certain individuals and groups who are on a par with their counterparts in the most developed of worlds. It is the material and social conditions of people that determine where they place themselves on this continuum, and not necessarily their geographical belonging.
Further, I submit that this gradated technological competence continuum may not necessarily be a function of age, with the younger generations being better performers than the less digitally-savvy elders. The fact of the matter is that the leaders of change, innovation, and technology are to be found among all ages groups, possibly more among the generations that Prensky refers to as digital immigrants.
By way of summary, it looks as though there is room for rethinking the digital native/immigrant divid. To be sure, the age factor can yield certain clues, but it is oblivious of certain facts relating to creativity, innovation and leadership. Neither is the digital divide between countries that are technologically advanced and others that are at some level of development, beginning or intermediate, an accurate representation of reality. A view of technological competence as a continuum of competencies seems to be a more tenable and defensible position, leaving open the possibility of upgrading one’s skills, deepening one’s understanding and bridging one’s lacunae of technology at social as well as individual levels.