Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants

In the essay Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Marc Prensky uses the term Digital Native to refer to (young) people who are ““native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” Prensky confesses that Digital Native is “the most useful designation” for the “new” students of today. He sets Digital Natives against Digital Immigrants—that is those “who were not born into the digital world,” but who have become “fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology.” He further embellishes this analogy by arguing that Digital Immigrants “always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.” Prensky presents his argument in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“Digital Immigrants can, and should,” according to Prensky, “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] “accent.”” In proper dramatic fashion he asserts that “the single biggest problem facing education today is that [our] Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” [Prensky’s bold italics]

Though Prensky’s analogy is attractive, albeit superficially, and works to highlight in a hyperbolic, comedic form intergenerational clashes, I found his analogy inherently problematic. Conceptually, Prensky’s analogy fuses the political with the digital in a way that invites us to think about highly politicized issues like, belonging, and ownership of space, border crossing, and the temporalization of difference (modern versus backward) in a way that diminishes their political weight.

Moreover, through a “temporalization of digital space” Prensky regards the difference in the ways Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants engage with technology as a temporal gap. Digital Immigrants are essentially framed as anachronisms—as people who belonged to an earlier time. He even implies that the difference between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants is much more structural. He contemplates that “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up.” Be that as it may, I find the biologization of difference troubling—especially since his analogy has an undeniable racial undercurrent.

What’s more, his description of Digital Immigrants as “a population of heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners,” along with his call to “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] accent,” is offensive for all of us who have faced difficulties in life due to our “accents.” Those of us whose “foreign accents” have been mocked will find it difficult to crack a smile.

This analogy invites us to conceptualize the digital divide in diasporic terms, and the rigid juxtaposition of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants forecloses “digital hybrid identities,” meaning users who grew up using both “old technology” and “new technology.” Prensky obscures the dynamic and fluid and highly contextual nature of accents. We all have accents, and there’s no standard way of “speaking new technology.”

Also, Prensky’s description of “accented modes of behaviour,” for example “bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL),” creates, whether intended or not, geographies of technology—“digital space,” where natives feel at home, and IRL, where immigrants feel more comfortable. Specific bodily performances invariably betray one’s “Digital Immigrant status.” Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are, thus, not only distinguished in terms of specialization, but also spatialization.

Needless to say, I found this text iffy, if not objectionable. I must admit that I am disappointed with the quality of the texts. Up till now, I’ve generally used the listed texts as “spark plugs,” that is as means to get me think about e-learning and digital cultures in a broad sense. I’ve not mined them for “things to learn.” That is not to say I haven’t learned anything from them, it’s just that I have learned more from the “off-syllabus” reading I’ve done.

Word cloud of Marc Prensky's essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants"
Word cloud of Marc Prensky’s essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”