Digital Natives

February 23, 2016

From an interview with Douglas Rushkoff (early Internet culture pioneer and author of a book called Cyberia):

You’ve been credited with coining the term “digital natives” – saying they are better equipped to navigate the current landscape. Is it not harder for them since they don’t have an experience of anything pre-Google, pre-smartphone etc?

Originally I thought they could navigate it better and my generation were the immigrants. I think they have more facility with these networks and platforms as they are designed but they have less insight that they are designed environments. They don’t see how they are tilted towards extracting value from them.

This is really intriguing line of thinking. Like Douglas, I’d always assumed that the next generation would be technologically adept like ours, but with even more natural fluency and insight into how all the pieces fit. I think we can say with some authority today that subsequent generations did indeed become expert users of technology, but may not have the depth of understanding that we might have expected them to. They might be able to use a new iPhone app like Instagram instinctively, but very few would be able to offer a basic explanation into how any of it works.

To be fair, few people from any generation would be able to go into exhaustive detail on any technical subjects, but the first generation of digital “immigrants” had a bit of an edge in that just being able to participate often required non-trivial understanding of technology. Building a computer from its constituent parts was a mandatory trial on the road to owning a PC. Getting an Internet connection often required reading through a modem’s technical documentation and doing some tricky troubleshooting. There were no click-to-play gaming platforms like today, so playing a multiplayer game of Quake necessitated some understanding of basic networking. Tumblr didn’t exist, so it was common to learn basic HTML, CSS, and how to deploy a web server to get a personal homepage online. People even learned the basics of the advertising industry as the first 468x60 ads with 10c per-click payouts started appearing.

The error in our thinking was that we assumed people wanted a digital wild west where they could continue pushing forward on the boundaries of the frontier. In reality, most people far prefer their cities that safely keep them insulated from the outside: messaging inside Facebook’s blue enclosure, blogging within the confines of Tumblr, posting photography with the comfortable filters of Instagram, network play on the hosted servers of Battle.net, or buying an ready made MacBook. As soon as these easy environments became available, the majority of the population migrated to them in droves.

Digital Natives was published on February 23, 2016.

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

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