I am a digital immigrant

I only heard of the term “digital immigrant” a few days ago and would like to pay my rather belated respects to Marc Prensky, who, in 2001, coined the terms “native” and “immigrant” to mark a spectrum of differences in the ease or comfort with which we handle digital interfaces.  Prof. Prensky speaks from the field of education.  His primary concern is — or was, in 2001 — with the marked differences in thinking, memory, and approach to learning that prevails between teachers and student.   For teachers were almost by definition digital immigrants, and their students, almost by definition, digital natives.  Natives are those who grew up with digital technology (don’t understand why anyone would “dial” a telephone, don’t expect to need training for software that should be self-explanatory, don’t see why learning should necessarily require the completion of specific steps in a specific order. There are many more). Prensky defines “native,” loosely, as people born after about 1980.

I find myself both admiring and resisting this provocative metaphor.  It opens up new ways of thinking about time, age, identity and communications technology (the details of Prensky’s account of cognitive differences between the two groups is particularly revealing.).  But it also seems to oversimplify very complex differences and reproduce some ancient, unhelpful assumptions about natives and immigrants. 

Here’s an image of some natives in front of one of the most widely admired paintings in the world, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  The photographer, we strongly suspect, was a digital immigrant, along with the writer of this post, who chose it.  We — and I suspect my readers are part of this group as well — regret that the visitors are not looking at the painting. Perhaps we further feel they should be, since that is the whole point of paintings. It presents us with some difficult questions, e.g. How would a native “picture” this situation?  Who am I to insist that s/he ought to look at the painting?  Why do I continue to feel I am right about this, that the natives would, in this case, do well to learn from us?     

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