In My Own Write: The great cyber-chasm

One in eight parents allow their toddlers aged two and under online access.

Cyber hackers [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cyber hackers [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I recently found that my computer was repeatedly refusing to download four “important” Windows updates.
So I contacted my computer guy and asked how serious the matter was. For all I knew, the entire system could implode.
He assured me that Microsoft had recently put out hundreds of updates, not all of them vital, nor even intended for my system. He would be along eventually, he said, to stop those annoying warnings popping up periodically on my screen.
Aside from the relief I felt, this exchange drove home for the umpteenth time my status as a “digital immigrant,” accompanied by the prevailing sense of technological inadequacy that plagues so many of us who grew up in the pre-computer age. My computer maven, I need hardly say, is a “digital native.”
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These apt twin terms were popularized by two Americans, first by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and then, in the early 2000s, by writer and educator Marc Prensky.
WHY DO I take a simple on-screen notification like “failed to download” as an accusation of personal failure? Why, even as I have begun to discover what my iPhone can open up for me – the amazing Waze traffic and navigational application, for instance – do I feel like a traveler and not a true resident in cyberland? Undoubtedly, a level of unease and maybe even fear forms part of the immigrant experience everywhere. We (age 30 and up), who “emigrated” from a culture without computers, cell phones, downloaded music, instant messaging and the plethora of social media, are learning, well or less well, to adapt to the digital age. But, as Prensky has described it, we always retain something of “an accent,” in this case, one foot planted in our old, familiar, vastly less technological past.
In a 2001 article, he included some examples of the digital immigrant “accent”: printing out your email; needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it rather than editing on-screen; and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting website rather than just sending them the URL.
“My own favorite example,” he wrote, “is the ‘Did you get my email?’ phone call.”
I admit to a degree of envy as I gaze across the great technological divide and view the speed, ease and unflurriedness with which digital natives activate their electronic devices.
Digital immigrants operate with a mixture of hope and bravado; digital natives look their devices firmly in the eye, letting them know who’s in charge. When something doesn’t work, the immigrant goes “Uh-oh” and struggles to keep calm; the native just shrugs and tries another way.
BUT WERE it possible, would I choose to change my status from digital immigrant to digital native, with all it implies, including research that says the two groups show differences in the way their brains are wired, and that they think differently? A catchy Internet presentation titled “Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants” quoted some thought-provoking statistics about those it termed “independent multitaskers living in virtual worlds.”
From kindergarten through college, it said, the average digital native spends 10,000 hours playing video games; 20,000 hours watching TV; 250,000 hours emailing and instant messaging, and less than 5,000 hours reading books. The presentation dates from 2009; but given the pace of technology and current trends, those figures can only have increased – or, in the case of book reading, decreased.
A study by the parenting site Netmums quoted this week in Britain’s Telegraph reported that children start using the Internet at the average age of three. They are now spending so much time online that one in three children struggles with offline activities that require concentration such as reading a book.
One in eight parents, the study says, allow their toddlers aged two and under online access.
Does it make me sound hopelessly antique if I say this is freakish? I’ve previously mentioned the amusement mixed with dismay I felt in North America last year when I saw a couple of two-year-olds toddling around clutching iPads almost as big as themselves, which they seemed adept at using.
It didn’t make me happy to see them returning expertly, again and again, to retail sites specially designed to get toddlers to demand that their parents purchase the toys advertised.
IN A YouTube video, Kylie, aged four and a half, demonstrates with great aplomb how she takes “a picture of my fish, Dorothy. I plug this thingy in here,” [the computer] “then I push this... I’m going to send it to my mom and dad.” Raising her digital camera, she invites the fish to “say cheese.”
Cute. But I couldn’t decide whether a video of six-year-old, selfdeclared digital native Abbey and her little sister, Mali, avid consumers and precocious “fashionistas of the future” who “love shopping” and “buy all their clothes online,” was parody or for real as they piped out their shrilly insistent demands of designers and retailers in the digital age. But it was scary.
Three years earlier, the Australian Abbey had already appeared in a video titled “What digital natives want from their library” spouting terms like “semantic tagging, real time information, augmented reality and geospatial tagging.”
I agreed with one talkbacker who found “watching a little kid coached to slur out this script line-by-line...
Abbey says she wants “an online library that has lots of multimedia, where everything is quick and easy.” Is she a forerunner of readers of the future – and if so, what does this mean for the great works of literature, which, while inestimably rewarding, are anything but “quick and easy”?
MY HUSBAND has just finished rereading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and all the way through has waxed lyrical about the book, the writer and the value of classical literature. A former high school English teacher, he likes to describe good fiction as “a lie that tells the truth,” and says the great novels “tell a truth that has stood the test of time and resonates with us to this very day.”
The key thing, he reflects, is that these authors “know how to tell a good story, and that is the first thing that grabs you. Then as you go deeper, you realize you are being offered a profound experience and insight into the human condition.”
As he closed the book, he wondered aloud, not without humor, “how many people in the world are reading Vanity Fair at this moment.” How many, I added, will be reading it 30 years from now?
IT IS comforting to note that Marc Prensky, who helped popularize the polarizing terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant,” has largely moved away from this duality to something more inclusive of both groups.
People tend to make absolute judgments that reflect their own formative cultures. Thus immigrants need to beware of a mindset that is stuck in the way they learned to do things, and natives need to realize that technology is only a part of life, and not life itself.
“In order for us to get it right,” says educator Prensky amid a reality that is changing more rapidly than it ever has in human history, all of us “will need a lot more of what we typically call ‘wisdom’ – perhaps even ‘digital wisdom.’” Does that mean there’s a chance the Abbeys of the future will be reading Vanity Fair? Let us hope so.