native son

Am I a digital native? Or can I write my own metaphor?

Because I follow Jesse Baer on Twitter, the idea of a Digital Native is never far from my brain. A recent post on the Digital Natives blog got me thinking again about what my citizenship status is in this hypothetical land.

I think that the term Digital Native is both useful and problematic. While it’s certainly true that there is now a generation walking among us who have grown up never knowing the sound of a carriage return on a typewriter, a generation who presumably takes for granted the instant connectivity that this era of technology has ushered in, I wondered at first if the metaphor of Digital Native doesn’t produce an artificial distinction that distorts more than it reveals.

I asked Jesse for a working definition of the term, and he pointed me to this post by John Palfrey at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. In it, Palfrey makes a neat distinction between those who are “born digital” and those who “live digital” – and allows that there is overlap between the two species, creating four hybrids (i.e., you can be born digital but not live digital, or be born pre-digital and live digital. But you might still have an accent.).

Perhaps I am in a unique position. I am 36 years old – I was born in 1971. I remember the initial release of Star Wars in the movie theaters, but I needed to be driven there by my parents; this was for years my line of demarcation for those who were of “my generation.”

So I am not a Digital Native.

However, I am of an age that I feel has been contemporaneous with the advances of digital, networked technology and how it impacts our lives.

In short, I feel like I have grown up with digital technology — that we are exact peers.

In 1983, my mother bought an Apple II. She was a special education teacher at the local middle school, and, by virtue of the continuing ed classes that she kept unaccountably taking in computer science instead of education, became that school’s accidental techie.

In the process of researching what (if any!) computers her school might need to purchase, she bought one for herself. I was 12 years old.

Over the next few years, I learned how to:

(Mom tested out all the latest educational software on her little geniuses first.)

The Apple II got me started.

Later, when I entered high school, Mom upgraded to an Apple IIe. I mostly learned how to clear misfeeds on the old dot-matrix printer, scrolling out page after page of the green-and-white-striped paper that fed from under the desk in a mysterious cubby hole.

The Apple IIe helped me write my first papers and poems.

When I went to college, I brought along an Apple II GS. I felt pretty hip, as I was the only one on my floor in the dorm at Mount Holyoke to have such an advanced machine. But I was quickly overshadowed by the gal next year who flaunted her Inkjet printer – and charged us a quarter a page at finals time to print out last-minute term papers in high-tech fashion.

When I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I used new graphics software like Adobe Illustrator. Then, I took a year off before going to graduate school, and during that year it seemed like Illustrator had undergone a quantum leap, and I was no longer master of it. (It took a little catching up, but I’m back on top again in that relationship.)

And then I entered the working world, and technology just exploded in a burst of creativity and ambition and optimism – as did I. Technology and I careened along through our twenties, rocketing enthusiastically from one endeavor to another, soaking up as much knowledge as we could in each sector we found ourselves in, then moving happily and energetically on to the next without a backward glance.

It seemed like, at every stage, whatever I needed to do, whatever new skills I needed to develop, technology had just then advanced to the exact state that I needed it to.

We were exact peers, total contemporaries. We wore the same class ring. We wrote in each other’s yearbooks.

I don’t see digital technology as a land, or a territory, or even as a lifestyle. To me it is an only slightly younger brother – a scrappy, inventive brother who is always making up bizarre and engaging games to pass the time during the long afternoons in between school and dinner, saving me from the drudgery of watching those awful after-school specials.

Instead, I have this amazing and fun little brother…

…who says you be the pirate and I’ll be the prince or you be the robot and I’ll be civilization or I just found this let’s see what it does and we play in the street until the sun sinks down and we can only see each other’s flashing white teeth and our skinny white legs disappearing far away down the street.

Who is technology to you?


4 responses to “native son

  1. Beth, I’m new to all this digital jargon but your demarkation of our generation is an interesting one. I would actually use a later development as a cut-off point from the previous generation to ours at least: telnetting into social networks like MUDs, MUCKs and IRC. I started in ’89. That was a starting point for me of the new world. The next cut off would be those who never experienced that phase but went into the chat/AOL/AIM era. I can’t exclude non-digital users of our generation who didn’t get into computers, that seems unfair. (I’m a year old than you.)

    I, however, had the fortunate circumstance that my mother was a secretary and even though I was a college-prep math/science student typing just seemed something you learned. I took it, by my own choice, as an elective in high school at 14. We were graded on typing speed so naturally as a straight A student I learned to type fast! To this day it amazes me that the computer class requirement, which came into being about 2 years behind my curriculum when my brother hit high school, never included keyboard skills. Or that kids now don’t learn touch typing either. Even when I headed off to university in ’88 all papers were required to be submitted typed (this was the University of Illinois) despite typing not being a skill the vast majority of university freshmen had ever learned.

  2. Pingback: Native or immigrant of the digital world? « Our Freedom of Espresso

  3. Your ornery ‘little brother’ analogy and peer/class ring touchpoints are priceless and have hooked me on this blog for good (found you via BK) —

    So though I’m in the forty something vs. thirty something realm, we are digital ‘sisters’ in spirit to use the power of this amazing media for positive social change.

    I’m by no means a digital native, but am clearly a digital champion, eager to fulfill on the promise and hope of this bold new technology to do positive things…(yes, I DO remember the carriage return sound well, AND the longhand journals and ‘sealing wax’ teen days when I could still be legible with a pen—no more, the keyboard has become my literal digital extension w/flying fingers as you can see in this handwriting/digital demise post that echoes danah boyd’s

    But even though some of the kids that advise us for Shaping Youth are ‘digital natives’ they don’t necessarily fit into that ‘early adopter’ moniker that gets tossed around as a given…In fact, some of these kids could care less about technology, even though they’re using media as a conduit for social engagement…

    So…WHO is technology to me?

    Hmn…generationally, clearly I’m an ‘immigrant’ which fits me, since I was raised as a global citizen morphing from culture to culture learning about this small blue marble of a planet and what my role was destined to be within it…so perhaps that metaphor extends further…

    Technology to me is like being a ‘stranger in a strange land’…exciting and thrilling while a tad uncomfy and edgy never knowing what’s to come…

    Like exotic travel, it requires full immersion into the culture in order to understand beyond the superficial offerings of being a ‘tourist’ and remaining on the paved trail.

    So I guess I’m an ‘ex-pat’ of sorts, blending and morphing into multiple social media environs and virtual worlds, never fully ‘fitting in’ but embracing the nuances as experiential pleasures. Living digital with a twist…so to speak.

    Thrilled to find your blog…Keep up the great work!

  4. Yeah, it’s not just your age – it’s your attitude!

    I’m a 40+ digital mom who thought she was keeping up with technology, but found out that this sibling ran ahead while I blinked.

    Some days, technology is my sister. Other days, technology is the 17 year old athlete who leaves middle aged moms in the dust.

    Hey, at least technology keeps me moving forward, learning & growing.

    Thanks for asking!

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