Time to put the ‘digital natives’ in their place

By Lorraine Warren on December 19th, 2011

Why is it that my students think I can’t handle a smartphone, or that I’ve never heard of social media? These technologies come up in conversations about student life all the time, but every time they do, there’s an odd moment – a semicolon in an otherwise happy flow. Something along the lines of: “We organised it on… Facebook?” No need for the anxious pause, kiddo. I know what Facebook is.

It seems extraordinary to me that they might think I didn’t. When asked, they hint, somewhat tentatively, that my advanced age might have put me out of the picture. Like this is just a youth thing. Some of them even use that ghastly phrase, “digital natives”.

Through gritted teeth, I tentatively hint that I might have even built part of the internet, and am on good terms with Tim Berners-Lee. Not true, but it proves my point that it is not only fifty-somethings who occasionally look daft.

What does “digital native” actually mean? To me, it suggests an over-confidence that can stand in the way of transformative digital innovation. What do we assume when we come across one? That you have been around digital technology all your life?

Well, yes, maybe. But unless you have studied technology in a specialist field, what this seems to boil down to is a speedy facility with plug-and-play devices that have easy-to-use visual menu systems, which may – or may not – result in some novel business model or development down the line. If that is all it is, these kids are missing a trick.

The rapid development of digital technologies presents a new nexus of possibilities for innovation by non-computer scientists: widespread access to broadband and mobile devices, bespoke applications development, social media platforms with the potential to amplify new ideas to a global audience, and readily available data from government sources.

It should, by now, be easier than it has ever been to not only access and use new technologies, but to extend them, customise them, combine them, and take them to new sectors and markets. The potential for not only incremental improvement, but real innovation is massive.

But anyone who has tried to make anything new from all these ingredients knows, as soon as you get away from the trial, you run into problems.

You might need to get “under the hood” and tweak things to give you the speed, functionality, or connectivity you need. As soon as you start to scale anything beyond the local, you have to know how to force data through thin pipes; you have to know how the internet, and mobile networks, actually operate – and not just as a user. It is not just a matter of bolting a “techie” on to your project (I’m gritting my teeth again). You need the right level of conversations with technologists, potential users, industry specialists, VCs. Who’s the digital native now.

My generation came up the hard way through technology. We learned the basics of computing on command-line driven systems like DOS. We had to write macros to make Office-style applications like spreadsheets and databases to do anything remotely interesting or useful. We then moved to GUIs, and started to work with multimedia, graphics, videos and sound, when applications were thin on the ground and processor power and RAM memory were low. CD-ROM was the storage du jour. We fiddled around with video files in the early 90s, when the sky in a frame would appear before the faces, as we experimented with different compression algorithms, squeezing data through sclerotic hardware systems.

And so it went on, as peer-to-peer networking and eventually the internet became the norm. Adopters expanded the capabilities of these technologies, through knowing about what went on underneath the interface – finding workarounds and dodges that made the early stuff work just that little bit harder than it was meant to.

Coming back to the present: these skills are still needed to drive the benefits of the fantastic platforms we have available to us today. So yes, many of us in ‘advanced age’ do know how to use Facebook, and some of us may even be more digitally savvy than you.

Try not to take it too seriously. It is not all about Web 2.0.