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Digital natives, immigrants and others

This article appears in the issue January 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 1]

My friends and colleagues John Palfrey and Urs Gasser are writing a book about the difference between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." John and Urs are both at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and both are excellent thinkers, writers and researchers. This is likely to be a book that starts a long and well-grounded discussion. It’s also likely to be a big hit.

John and Urs are working out the subtleties in the distinctions, which by itself will be helpful, for I have to confess that the usual division into natives and immigrants makes me just a little uncomfortable. My issue is a small one that looms larger only because it touches on where I personally get classified. You see, I’ve met digital immigrants. I’ve set digital immigrants up with computers and have walked them through endless hours of Microsoft network configuration. And I, sir, am no digital immigrant.

I’m also way too old to be a digital native, at least by the usual definition. Two of our three children are of the right age, and they do indeed inhabit the Internet differently than I do. I’m perpetually amazed by the Internet; they take it for granted. I’m crazy in love with it; for them that’d be like being in love with air.

My in-laws are digital immigrants. They are new to computers and to the Internet. Like immigrants who do not know the language of their new land, they have struggled over the simplest issues. They’ve had to learn why some rectangles on the screen are windows, some are icons, some are buttons, and some are the desktop itself. They’ve had to learn that there is very little consistency among the sites that show up in their browser. The New World of the Internet is frustrating and difficult for true immigrants. They may learn rapidly, but they are not yet fully at home there.

John and Urs are right now gathering the data that will let them specify with some certainty precisely what the differences in use and attitude are between the natives and the immigrants. Whatever those differences turn out to be, they’re real. We don’t have to wait for their research to know that there is a real dividing line.

But what about ol’ Number One (at least in my own mind)? Where do I fit? I’m neither a clear case of a digital native nor of a digital immigrant. Perhaps that’s true of you, too. Unlike digital immigrants, we are fluent in the language, so to speak. We are so totally at home on the Web that people worry that we’ve confused it with our real homes. I hear murmurs among my loved ones about "obsession" and "interventions." My social life online dwarfs my pathetic social life offline (family life excepted). I’m wittier, smarter and waaaay better looking online.

So perhaps it would be better to think of me and my cohort as being like settlers during colonial times in the United States, say around 1788. We lived here when the big change happened. We got to see it up close. Some of our number even have participated in it. We remember what life was like before the change, unlike our children who were simply born into it and unlike the welcome immigrants arriving by the boatful.

It’s a small point that matters to only some of us. In any case, time is not on my cohort’s side. Soon there will only be immigrants and natives, and soon after that, only natives. And then we’ll see what we make of this new land.

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