What do you do with a digital native?

As you might guess from Jacob Kramer-Duffield’s write-up of a recent Berkman listserv debate, the question of what it means to be a digital native has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. At last week’s intern meeting, discussion of the issue somehow ended up as a mass argument over, among other things, whether the car was a comparable innovation to the PC, whether the digital revolution is better or worse for society than industrialization was, and whether determining any of this actually mattered, given that only about a sixth of the world’s population has regular Internet access. I think the question — “Who/what is a digital native?” – is controversial because answering it requires us to contemplate other discomfiting questions that are hard to answer definitively.

The first is this – are people of all ages still “relevant” in a digital age? The Digital Natives Project maintains a) that digital natives are defined more by their habits than how old they are and b) that older people (often called ‘digital immigrants’) may be more tech savvy than their younger counterparts. The term “native” does not mean better or worse, it merely distinguishes youth who have been raised in a world of mainstreamed digital technologies – Web 2.0, social networking sites, etc. All the same, a lot of parents worry they can’t keep up with what their kids are doing online and feel left behind. Some adults find the term to be an affront – they consider themselves far more fluent in technology than most young people and don’t see how they themselves might be anything but native to digital space.

Here’s the second question: “is ‘digital natives’ merely a term for the most privileged group of young people?” If the answer were yes, our project would seem precious – still relevant, perhaps, but blind to the full effect of digital technology on all levels of society. The real answer is much more complicated. It’s true that not all young people are digital natives, but the group is clearly not limited to those who have access to the best connections and computers either. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, at least 87% of American teenagers 12-17 are online. Cell phones make digital technology more accessible as well – Latinos, of whom only about 56% are online, lead other racial groups in mobile device usage. Internationally, though, only about 1 billion of the world’s approximately 6.7 billion people have regular Internet access.

Berkman is a place for work with real-world impact. People here do more than write papers for those in their field; they embark on projects to help us understand each other, the law, and the impact digital technology is having on society. One of the goals of the Digital Natives Project is to figure out what ‘digital native’ actually means – and how we might go about addressing the social divisions it implies. It’s no wonder people at Berkman can get riled up about the term. The generational and socioeconomic barriers it evokes are among those Berkmanites are working to break down, even as it becomes clear that those divisions exist with or without the Internet.

Nikki Leon