Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Evolution of the Digital Native

I'll cut to the chase and tell you that there has been no evolving. The digital natives are just as stupid now as they were when some egg-head social thinker invented them.

And I say "invented" because that's what we did. We invented them. Because they don't exist. Or, more accurately, they existed, but they were the same as everyone else.

Just like the automobile, where we are all "automotive natives," I bet most of us don't know how a car works. We can probably repair something that doesn't require fluid drainage or correct torque specifications, like we could all change the oil or replace a bulb or change the air filter, but most of us couldn't run a diagnostics check or check to see how many amps are being pulled by the compressor, as if I would know what that means. I never go near electricity despite being an "electrical native."

But 10-15 years ago, we saw all these people with all this electronic stuff and we assumed that they knew what they were doing. But they didn't. They knew enough to use the technology, but ask any digital native how many old phones or game consoles or computers he has and you'll learn what poor planning and how little understanding of his own needs his has. These natives buy every new thing without learning how to be satisfied with tools that fill their needs. New tools are better tools, it seems.

But as we observed the digital generation, we assumed they knew something we didn't. As outsiders, we make the assumptions because we also assume we are missing something and give the group the benefit of the doubt. But anyone who observed the group would have discovered the level of immersion into the technology was the computer equivalent of giving the car an oil change. The group used the technology just as the previous group used their new technology. The tool has many uses, but we apply it to solve the problems that occur. Some people go on to become masters of tools, just as some people became mechanics to repair our cars. But many, many others are satisfied to just use the tools for simple tasks. It is uncommon for one to gain skills outside his immediate needs or wants. Only very few of us move from user to explorer to teacher.

So we invented the digital natives because we were from a different generation. But we didn't apply what we knew about ourselves to this new group. We didn't say, "Hey, we were all born with cars and electricity and planes, but we're not all mechanical and electrical geniuses. Hell, my clock on my VCR is still blinking 00:00." We didn't do that. We assumed that this group would be different. But they're not. And it took us years to understand that.

So the evolution of the digital native is not their evolution, but ours. I think it's been a lesson that we shouldn't assume that because someone is born into a culture that they are better able to control it, master it or exploit it. You can make whatever point you want about, let's say, texting, and ask how many texts I send a day. And the answer would be zero. But that doesn't win your argument because if you asked how many notes I passed to other kids in class when I was in 7th grade, I'd say about 30, per class. And at 7 classes a day, that's over 200 of the "automotive native's" equivalent to a text, pretty much what kids the same age do today.

So technology it simply the tool that kids today use to be social. In my time, it was paper. Does my use of paper qualify me to run a paper mill? No. Just as texting doesn't make someone a computer genius. It just means they're not paying attention in class.

So we should learn from our digital native mistake. And when the next generational leap happens, say the Biomechanical Natives, who have bionic limbs, we won't go so crazy and think they have superpowers. Although on the basketball court, I could be proven wrong. Because those kids can dunk.

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