Digital Natives? Not So Fast

I’m about the enter the final week of my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading” class here at Indiana University.  I’ll be sad to see it go.  Not only has the group been excellent this semester, but I’ve learned so much about how my students are negotiating this protracted and profound moment of transition in the book world — what I like to call, following J. David Bolter, “the late age of print.”

One of the things that struck me early on in the class was the extent to which my students seemed to have embraced the notion that they’re “digital natives.”  This is the idea that people born after, say, 1985 or so grew up in a world consisting primarily of digital media.  They are, as such, more comfortable and even savvy with it than so-called “digital immigrants” — analog frumps like me who’ve had to wrestle with the transition to digital and who do not, therefore, fundamentally understand it.

It didn’t occur to me until last Wednesday that I hadn’t heard mention of the term “digital natives” in the class for weeks.  What prompted the revelation was a student-led facilitation on Robert Darnton’s 2009 essay from the New York Review of Books, on the Google book scanning project.

We’d spent the previous two classes weighing the merits of Kevin Kelly’s effusions about digital books and Sven Birkerts‘ poo-pooings of them.  In Darnton we had a piece not only about the virtues and vices of book digitization, but also one that offered a sobering glimpse into the potential political-economic and cultural fallout had the infamous Google book settlement been approved earlier this year.  It’s a measured piece, in other words, and deeply cognizant of the ways in which books, however defined, move through and inhabit people’s worlds.

In this it seemed to connect with the bookish experiences of my group purported digital natives, whose remarks confounded any claims that theirs was a generationally specific, or unified, experience with media.

Here’s a sampling from the discussion (and hat’s off to the facilitation group for prompting such an enlightening one!):

One student mentioned a print-on-paper children’s book her mother had handed down to her.  My student’s mother had inscribed it when she herself was seven or eight years old, and had asked her daughter to add her own inscription when she’d reached the same age.  My student intends to pass the book on one day to her own children so that they, too, may add their own inscriptions.  The heirloom paper book clearly is still alive and well, at least in the eyes of one digital native.

Another student talked about how she purchases paper copies of the the e-books she most enjoys reading on her Barnes & Noble Nook.  I didn’t get the chance to ask if these paper copies were physical trophies or if she actually read them, but in any case it’s intriguing to think about how the digital may feed into the analog, and vice-versa.

Other students complained about the amount of digitized reading their professors assign, stating that they’re less likely to read for class when the material is not on paper.  Others chimed in here, mentioning that they’ll read as much as their prepaid print quotas at the campus computer labs allow, and then after that they’re basically done.  (Incidentally, faculty and students using Indiana University’s computer labs printed about 25 million — yes, million – pages during the 2010-2011 academic year.)

On a related note, a couple of students talked about how they use Google Books to avoid buying expensive course texts.  Interestingly, they noted, 109 pages of one of the books I assign in “The Cultures of Books and Reading” happen to appear there.  The implication was that they’d read what was cheap and convenient to access, but nothing more.  (Grimace.)

Finally, I was intrigued by one of the remarks from my student who, at the beginning of the term, had asked me about the acceptability of purchasing course texts for his Kindle.  He discussed the challenges he’s faced in making the transition from print to digital during his tenure as a college student.  He noted how much work it’s taken him to migrate from one book form (and all the ancillary material it generates) to the other.  Maybe he’s a digital native, maybe he isn’t; the point is, he lives in a world that’s still significantly analog, a world that compels him to engage in sometimes fraught negotiations with whatever media he’s using.

All this in a class of 33 students!  Based on this admittedly limited sample, I feel as if the idea of “digital natives” doesn’t get us very far.  It smooths over too many differences.  It also lets people who embrace the idea off the hook too easily, analytically speaking, for it relieves them of the responsibility of accounting for the extent to which print and other “old” media still affect the daily lives of people, young or old.

Maybe it’ll be different for the next generation.  For now, though, it seems as if we all are, to greater and lesser degrees, digital immigrants.

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2 comments

  1. Siva Vaidhyananathan says:

    There is no such thing as a “generation.” http://chronicle.com/article/Generational-Myth/32491

  2. Chuck says:

    I’ve had a similar experience with discussions of digital cinema. Many of our students aren’t willing to throw away physical media just yet.

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