Change has come to all of us

Posted by Nishant Shah at Oct 24, 2010 04:20 AM |
The general focus on a digital generational divide makes us believe that generations are separated by the digital axis, and that the gap is widening. There is a growing anxiety voiced by an older generation that the digital natives they encounter — in their homes, schools and universities and at workplaces — are a new breed with an entirely different set of vocabularies and lifestyles which are unintelligible and inaccessible. It is time we started pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a digital native.

In this connected world, the geek is everyone — from a grandma on Skype to a teen on Second Life.

Two self-proclaimed digital natives, on a cold autumn morning in Amsterdam, decided to leave the comforts of their familiar virtual worlds and venture into the brave new territories of real-life shopping. Though slightly confused by the lack of click-and-try options and perplexed by the limitations of the physical spaces of shopping, we plodded along, shop after shop, thinking how much easier it is to chat on IM while flying through Second Life as opposed to face-to-face interactions while walking on crowded streets. After we had run out of shops (and patience), we decided that it was time to rely on better resources than our own wits. The Dutch girl fished out her Android smartphone and with the single press of a button, opened up channels of information. She called her mother. She asked for the location of the store that was eluding us. And then she looked at me in silence before bursting into laughter. Her 64-year-old mother, in response to our question, had said, “Why don’t you just Google it?”

We spent five minutes in stunned laughter when we realised that we should have instinctively done that and that we were being asked by somebody from Generation U to “get with it”. Funny (and slightly embarrassing) as it is, it brings into focus, the question, “Who is a digital native?” For those of you who have been reading this column, it has been defined in terms of age and usage. A digital native is generally somebody young, somebody who is tech-savvy, somebody who can perform complicated calisthenics with digital technologies — throwing virtual sheep, having instant relationships, writing complex stories and pirating their favourite movies — in one nonchalant click of the mouse. However, these kinds of digital natives are only stereotypes.

If we move away from these descriptions of novelty, of excitement and of youth, a different kind of digital native emerges for us. A digital native is somebody whose way of thinking (about himself and the world around) is significantly informed because of the presence of and familiarity with the internet and digital technologies. In other words, a digital native is a person who has experienced (and is often led to) change because of their interactions with new technologies.

It can be a middle-aged man whose business changed when he started tracking his supplies using complex and sophisticated databases. It can be a mother of two, finding support and help raising her children on online communities like Bing. It can be a senior teacher re-discovering pedagogy through distributed knowledge systems on Wikipedia. It can be grandparents who interact with their grandchildren over Skype and text messaging, across international borders and lifestyles. It can be a mother telling her digital native daughter to “just Google it!” over the cellphone.

And as things might be, Shamini, my 15-year-old bonafide digital native correspondent from Ahmedabad, recently wrote that she got off Facebook and deleted her account. “It felt like I had retired from a job,” she said. But she was away from Facebook only for four months, dissociated from all the “time, energy and drama that it caused” and was quite enjoying it. After four months of self-imposed exile, she, however, resurfaced on Facebook. And it was to stay in touch with her aunt and uncle, who live in faraway lands, and cannot keep in touch with her unless she is on Facebook. Shamini was surprised at this. After spending much time convincing them about trying to use email and phones to keep connected, she finally gave in and started a new account that nobody knows of. And she asked me the important question: Who is the digital native now?

The general focus on a digital generational divide makes us believe that generations are separated by the digital axis, and that the gap is widening. There is a growing anxiety voiced by an older generation that the digital natives they encounter — in their homes, schools and universities and at workplaces — are a new breed with an entirely different set of vocabularies and lifestyles which are unintelligible and inaccessible. It is time we started pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a digital native.

My grandmother used to tell us, “Nobody is born knowing a language.” I think it is time to start applying the same logic here. Nobody is born with technologies. But there are people — perhaps not yet a generation, but still a population — who are changing their lives and significantly transforming the world by turning Google and Facebook and Twitter into verbs and a way of doing things. So the next time, somebody asks you if you know a digital native, don’t look for somebody out there — it might just be you!

The original column can be read in The Indian Express

 

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tettner
tettner says:
Oct 25, 2010 07:47 PM
Interesting point of view Nishant. My mom always tells me the story of the first time she saw a fax machine, her jaw fell and she was in disbelief for months and the feat. She finally, after many attempts from my side, learned how to use Facebook. I think we all have to train ourselves to see beyond the apparent and many times self-fulfilling prophesy of generational gap in digital technologies. Part of that process is empowering older adults to challenge the assumption that they are by definition inept at engaging with emergent technologies.
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