Digital Natives and Me

Inside Higher Education reported on a program at the ALA Annual Conference about video-gaming and how we should do more of it in libraries to learn to speak to the “digital natives,” sometimes known as the millennials. I can’t imagine this going on in my library, but I’d be happy to sit around and play video games in the library. I play a lot of games, video and otherwise, with my 7-year-old daughter, so it would just be an extension of my home life.

I was struck my a couple of things in this article. The first was a quote from George Needham of OCLC. From the article:

“The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis,” Needham said. The whole “gestalt” of the academic library has been set up like a church, he said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.”

Perhaps this is related to Robert Pirsig calling the university the “church of reason.” I wonder, though, who has ever thought of librarians as information priests. I managed to make it through college and two graduate programs without ever talking to a librarian, so obviously not me. In fact, though I’ve answered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reference questions, I’m not sure I’ve ever asked one. Maybe that’s why I ended up a librarian. (Well, that and having better job prospects than an itinerant rhetoric teacher.) I don’t think most students see librarians in this way. On the other hand, maybe Needham was criticizing some librarians who think of themselves as information priests, in which case, it’s a sound criticism.

But I was most struck by the label “digital natives,” which I’ve been seeing a lot lately, and its contrast with “digital immigrants.” The “digital natives” appear to be the current generation of high school and college students (i.e., the Millennials) who have grown up with the Internet, cell phones, and digital technology, while the “digital immigrants” are those oldsters who came to all this later in life.

The IHE piece links out to an article from 2001 on the “digital natives” and how they’re so much different than everyone else. If we assume 2001 wasn’t back in the dark ages, then the article might still have some relevance.

Here’s an interesting quote from the “digital natives” article:

“The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past. The ‘digital immigrant accent’ can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were ‘socialized’ differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even ‘thicker’ accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). I’m sure you can think of one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the ‘Did you get my email?’ phone call. Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our ‘accent.'”

I must admit, I found this sketch humorous, especially having the secretary printing out the email, but I wonder how accurately this describes librarians in general, or me in particular.

I have many older colleagues, who, while they might not be as comfortable with digital technology or constant adaptation as I am, aren’t all reactionary luddites either.

However, it may depend on what counts as an accent. I was looking at a list of minimum tech competencies on the Library Revolution Blog, which includes very basic skills like creating word documents or using spell checking. One of the commenters left a rather depressing note:

“I have so, so many colleagues who think sending an e-mail is a huge task. Who don’t know how to scan and save a picture. Who can type a letter in Word, but looks blank if asked to write something on a blog. Just today I had a fellow-librarian under 40 not getting that she’d created two documents with the same name in the same place, let alone being able to figure out what to do with them.”

That doesn’t sound like a huge number of my colleagues whose work I’m familiar with, but maybe I just don’t get out much.

David Lee King expanded Library Revolution’s list to a list of “Basic Competencies of a 2.0 Librarian.” If lacking knowledge of social networks or RSS means one is a digital immigrant, then most of the librarians I know probably are. On the other hand, I usually ask my students if they’re familiar with RSS, and they generally aren’t, so who knows.

I’m still not sure whether I’m a digital native or immigrant, though. For the record, I’m 38 (or will be in a couple of weeks), which puts me a generation behind the “digital natives,” but I certainly don’t feel like a digital immigrant. I may not have been on the Internet as a child, but I did have an Atari. I couldn’t do much with it, but I did have an Apple IIc, which according to the now standard reference source Wikipedia debuted in 1984, and hadn’t been out long when I got one. So maybe I was 16 instead of 6, but remember that Joseph Conrad spoke little English until he was about 20, and he wrote some pretty good stories. I may be a digital immigrant, but I’ve been one longer than I was an analog native.

I adapt quickly to change. i solve my own problems. I learn new technologies easily and by doing. I seldom “RTFM” unless I hit a snag.

I spend a lot of time with my various computers, and interact with them quickly and seamlessly. I always turn to the Internet first for information. Except for books, of which I read aplenty, almost all of my reading is done online, and I also do a lot of reading with the ebook reader on my pocket PC. I can’t remember the last time I touched an actual newspaper. I read, I write, I edit, I IM, I play games, I play around with social software, I surf the web, I study subjects, all on my computer. I have a feed reader, a Facebook account, a page, and a Second Life avatar. I’ve been giving talks lately on what could loosely be termed “Google 2.0.” I can do all the stuff on the tech and 2.0 competencies list. My use of gadgets is mainly limited by my bank account, and if my library would foot the bill for all my technology desires, I wouldn’t have to suffer from knowing someone else has a sleeker, lighter, more powerful laptop than me.

On the other hand, I’m not an addict. Really, I could quit anytime I want. For example, when I teach writing, I rarely allow laptops in my classroom. For the Princeton Writing Program, I teach a writing seminar on political philosophy and political rhetoric. (Current title: “Liberalism and its Critics.”) I teach essays by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Michael Oakeshott, Susan Okin, etc., and I insist the students print out the essays and bring them to class. Probably the only time I print out essays anymore is when I teach them.

Is that a “digital immigrant” accent? I don’t think so. I think it’s a way to slow down the rapid thoughts of both myself and my students so that we concentrate on the details of difficult philosophical essays and discuss the fine points of the articles. I don’t lecture, I lead discussions, and there’s no room for multitasking when engaged in a serious philosophical discussion about the applicability of Rawls’s “difference principle” or whether liberal egalitarianism should be more “ambition sensitive.”

Even if the students process some things differently, they are still human, and one goal of humanistic education is to teach students to read, write, and think deeply and carefully, to abjure the easy path, and not to think they’ve mastered a subject by reading the Wikipedia and Sparknotes (both of which I like, by the way). Hegel thought philosophy was superior to other forms of writing because it is the most abstract and can do away with images entirely. While one may be able to use a videogame to help teach philosophy, I doubt one could reproduce the Phenomenology of Spirit as a music video. Difficult thought requires concentration, writing requires concentration, and if the digital natives deny that I can only think they’re dissembling or that they avoid difficult thought.

Even with this example of a digital immigrant “accent,” I definitely don’t feel like an immigrant, and apparently in many ways I have a lot more in common with people twenty years younger than me than I do with people twenty years older than me. Or at least a lot more in common than I would have thought.

I’m very comfortable with technology and am happy to pick up and use any digital tools I need. But I do wonder whether rhetoric about “digital natives” and how vastly different they are obscures the overwhelming similarities we all share as humans. Do 2.0 tools make us different, or just better able to do things we’ve always done in a more efficient fashion? I see the value in new modes of communication and social interaction, but I also see the value in older methods of social and especially educational interaction: Slowing down. Reading closely. Thinking carefully. Discussing thoroughly. Writing precisely. If we don’t teach these skills, then we will have lost something important and valuable in our society.

So I wonder how much of this stuff is real, and how much hype. Perhaps that’s because I’m a Gen Xer, and we’re cynical and don’t like hype.