Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Digital Native, Digital Immigrant and Digital Refugee

At a recent event, the oft-mentioned terms - Digital Native and Digital Immigrant - were invoked, with the cast-iron borders set by birth on or before 1985. I come from the wrong country here, but that is only part of my discomfort with the doctrine. This, and other generational divides, handy as they are, represent, for me, both a tendency to generalise and at the same time, to divide, representing two wrong ideas at once.

My first problem with this doctrine is even more personal than my age. Are the immigrants not the drivers of change and innovation? At a time when immigrants are being called Feral Human Beings by The Sun, the hateful British newspapers which would give up decency for sensation at the drop of a hat, being hunted down by bullies in South Africa, being demonised in Mexico and Germany, they are still proof of human energy and human enterprise, an essential part of what made the world we live in. Civilisations, as much as they may seem to be, are not monoculture - they are living, evolving entities with migration, and the ideas they bring with, as its lifeblood. The immigrant in Digital Immigrant, though, has none of these redemptive opportunities, only their intruding selves that refuse to die (Katie Hopkins calls them cockroaches!) and claim real estate that, by some strange twist of fate, is claimed to belong to the natives.

Think America! This is one place the meaning of immigrants and natives flipped so many times! Indeed, the same applies to current context - people born before 1985 made the digital world and now they should be counted strangers in their own land. Surely, the immigrants are those who come, as people born after 1985 did, rather than those who created the territory in the first place. For all those who called out Digital Immigrants, it was a great expression invoking a revolution, a magical sort which happens overnight without the blood and sweat, a new land is created and new owners are proclaimed, but in one where no Newton could climb onto the shoulders of the giants as they would be alien shoulders. This is the usual problem in any theory of divide, it undermines the continuity of our knowledge and heritage, and indeed, barriers, mental or legal, usually condemn the fenced territory to decline by lack of ideas. 

The second problem with this use of Native/ Immigrant duality is that this bears, at its core, a sense of entitlement. And, any entitlement, including this one, seeks to establish a status quo, a sort of gated community with its own rules, which justifies counting others out. We must not overlook the fact the geographical and economic divide create great havoc with this beautiful construct of in/out phenomena happening around 1985, as does time. There are plenty of people born after 1985, because they were born in wrong places or circumstances, remain digitally excluded. Besides, as technologies keep changing, even the insiders become outsiders overnight. I did love Unix and the advent of Windows ended my nascent SysAdmin career, and the same tragedy plays out over and over again between siblings these days.

I have met Mark Prensky, who coined the terms, in person. Mark is a highly educated and thoroughly decent human being who may have nothing in common with the scandal-mongering Katie Hopkins of The Sun. Instead, he likes coining pithy terms that contain the possibility of future. Insightful as he is, I wished he did coin a third term alongwith - Digital Refugee! Because, this, refugee, is perhaps the most apt description of what people, born on planet earth at any point of time, really are. The cycles of technology are anti-entitlement, indulging in creative destruction in short cycles, and you and me, no matter when we were born, are both likely to be disenfranchised at one point or another, and have to crawl our way back, learning our way through newer terrains no less hazardous than the Libyan seas.    

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