When we talk about Digital Natives, are we just talking about privileged kids with access to technology? Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of an upcoming book on Google, thinks so:

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.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to this. In a recent talk at Berkman, sociologist Eszter Hargittai discussed her finding that “the only statistically significant predictor of engaging in creative activities at all is parental education.” And communication researcher John McMurria has observed that “a glance at the top 100 rated, viewed and discussed videos, and most subscribed channels [on YouTube] reveals far less racial diversity than broadcast network television.”

“It’s not just about access to the technology,” Henry Jenkins explained at the Totally Wired forum. “It’s access to defining skills and experiences. This is the new hidden curriculum.”

Unlike Vaidhyanathan, however, I see this as no reason to throw out the Digital Native metaphor. To the contrary. Unlike Baby Boomers or Generation X, Digital Natives are growing up now. When we use the term, we not only describe the past, but also look ahead to a future we can still change.

So let’s keep using the term, but as an aspiration as well as a description. Rather than pretend all kids are Digital Natives, let’s make that our goal. Because if we don’t act, the problems could get even worse. At her Berkman talk, Hargittai said she’s concerned unequal opportunities will become a vicious cycle:

I do think it’s going to create a greater divide, because I do think that for those who have the opportunities and have the skills, there really is so much out there. … It’s the people who don’t have the education, who don’t have the networks to figure it out, who aren’t going to be benefiting.

So how do we avoid this? I see hope in projects like One Laptop Per Child. Although that program is specifically aimed at the 3rd world, it points to the possibility of making laptops and wireless internet affordable to everyone, bypassing the time limits, crippled access, and dated technology too often found on the public computers at libraries and schools. Connecting to my last post, I’m also excited about the ideas coming from Katie Salen and her cohorts in the “edutainment” field.

These are just the first thoughts that come to mind. What do you think? How can we confront the problem of unequal access? And do you think the term “Digital Native” helps or hurts the cause? Comment away!

-Jesse Baer

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