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:
- Type, thanks to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
- Buy supplies for a cross-country road trip (and die from dysentery along the way), thanks to the Oregon Trail
- Shred my mother’s atlas and 11th edition Encyclopaedia Brittanica, thanks to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
(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?