Category: Metaphor

The Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy.

Digital NativeThis is a difficult post to write, for many reasons. It’s not emotionally difficult, the most common form of difficulty when simultaneously introspecting and providing analysis of the world. Instead, it’s a difficulty in knowing the appropriate critical distance to adopt.

I’ve tried my best in what follows to respond to two blog posts by Simon Bostock, someone whom I admire greatly and consider a ‘thought leader’. Indeed, most of his thoughts and tweets have me looking up things completely new to me.

However, in Natives and Myths of Digital Natives I think he’s missed the point somewhat. What I say below is my attempt to straddle the observational and the academic – whilst creating something I shall point people towards in future if and when I question their use of term ‘digital natives’.


A brief history of the Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy

In 2001, Marc Prensky had an article published in the non-peer-reviewed On The Horizon magazine entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In it, he made a very bold claim:

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the twentieth century.

as well as:

It is now clear that, as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures, “ says Dr Bruce D. Berry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed.

This is actually more restrained than some of the subsequent claims made by ‘progressive’ educators wanting to use this supposed disconnect as a rallying cry to reform the school system in their country. ‘Digital natives’ become a kind of shorthand, what Richard Rorty would call a ‘dead metaphor’.

It was not until some years later that peer-reviewed articles started being published that reviewed critically the evidence for such a disconnect. Feel free to ask in the comments for evidence of those, suffice to say that they are adequately summed up by what I consider to be the final nails in the coffin: Bennett, Maton & Kervin’s 2008 article The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence (currently freely available via Scribd). They concluded after looking at surveys and studies around the (admittedly, English-speaking) world:

In summary, though limited in scope and focus, the research evidence to date indicates that a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it for a range of information gathering and communication activities. However, there also appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea. Such generalisations about a whole generation of young people thereby focus attention on technically adept students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able will be neglected, and that the potential impact of socio-economic and cultural factors will be overlooked. It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations. (my emphasis)

It is this last sentence that I believe to be the clincher.

Who are you to say such things?

As much as I don’t believe it is necessary to have ‘qualifications’ to do what is, after all, armchair theorising, I do believe that I am in a fairly unique position to comment on the ‘Digital Native/Immigrant’ dichotomy. Why?

  • I’m 30 years old, being born in December 1980. That puts me right on the borderline of being a ‘Digital Native’ (as opposed to a ‘Digital Immigrant’), according to Prensky.
  • I was a teacher for 7 years. I observed vastly different practices and mindsets amongst the young people who entered my classroom (I taught ICT as well as History).
  • I’m a doctoral student looking into the closely-allied topic of ‘digital literacy’. I’m equally sceptical about how that term is used.
  • I’ve got a 4 year-old son and a baby daughter. My son has some ‘digital skills’ and I have observed closely his development. He’s more adept that other children in his class through daily use of ‘his’ iPad and netbook.
  • Finally, I work for/with/on behalf of JISC who deal with educational technology in a fairly major way. Check out, for example, the work JISC funded in regard to the ‘Google Generation’ and Learner Experiences of e-Learning projects

On the existence of ‘Digital Natives’

As far as I can tell, Simon – amongst the amusing and interesting anecdotes, makes the following points in Natives:

  1. Observation tells us that teenagers and older people interact differently
  2. Older people don’t ‘get’ video games.
  3. Children don’t learn languages, they acquire them along with mental models of the world.
  4. Mental models affect the way we see the world.
  5. “Digital natives differ essentially in the way they must behave and think and not in the way that they are able to think and behave.”

It’s difficult to argue with the first two points: teenagers do act differently than older people (but then we all do at different stages of our life); many older people don’t ‘get’ video games (but then I don’t ‘get’ cribbage). It’s dangerous to extrapolate from observed behaviour – are you merely observing social norms and expectations?

The problem I have with points 3-5 is the semi-determinist, homogeneous treatment of an ill-defined body of young people. Whilst I absolutely agree that the language you acquire (be it English or l33t) affects your view of the world, it’s all to do with immersion. Give me someone born before 1980 for a year, and I’ll return you someone who could pass as a ‘Digital Native’. I think we have too lofty a view of what, in most cases, are procedural skills and mental models that help us navigate digital environments.

For more on this, see Stephen Downes’ presentation Speaking in LOLcats (make sure you listen to the audio – don’t just look at the slides)

On the dangers of ‘Digital Natives’

In his follow-up post, Simon makes the following points:

  1. There’s nothing ‘offensive’ about the term ‘Digital Natives’
  2. Digital Native-ness can be learned, but it is harder for adults
  3. Being a Digital Native isn’t all to do with computers
  4. Digital Natives use computers differently, not ‘better’
  5. It’s not ‘dangerous’ to talk about Digital Natives

I am in absolute agreement with these points. However, instead of drawing the Simon’s conclusion that it’s therefore OK to talk about ‘Digital Natives’, I draw the opposite conclusion. I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about ‘Digital Natives’ for the same reason that I don’t think it’s helpful in general to unnecessarily highlight differences between people.

So, let me be clear. If you want to use conceptualise a group of people as ‘Digital Natives’ and another as ‘Digital Immigrants’ it should be because you are looking to do something positive. If your aim is to scaremonger, if your aim is to give up hope because you are, after all, a ‘Digital Immigrant’, if your aim is to make value judgements about the way people understand the world, then please don’t.

Instead, find another – better – way. ‘Digital participation’ might be a good place to start with some great stuff being produced by Futurelab’s on this. After all, as William Gibson famously stated, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

Image CC BY-NC-ND cole007

More on the (fragile) nature of reality.

Captured & Sequestered

One of the wonderful things about getting involved in a new venture like Purpos/ed is the connections that you make to people and organizations you’ve never heard of before. One such person is Dougald Hine, who’s been involved in a myriad of projects. This post centres around The Dark Mountain Project, something  Dougald co-founded.

What struck me upon reading the manifesto was, as I was discussing recently, the assumption behind most of what we do that business will continue as normal and that ‘reality’ is a stable, coherent, objective concept. In fact, what we term ‘reality’ is merely a “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” (William James) of competing narratives and stories. It’s the reason we often talk past one another: what some may dismiss as ‘semantics’ hide very real phenomenological difference in the way individuals are using terms to descibe things and ideas.

I urge you to read the whole of The Dark Mountain manifesto, but certainly the part quoted below (and definitely the last bit which I’ve emphasised in unmissable bold):

If we are indeed teetering on the edge of a massive change in how we live, in how human society itself is constructed, and in how we relate to the rest of the world, then we were led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves —above all, by the story of civilisation.

What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story. It has been told so many times by those who see themselves as rationalists, even scientists; heirs to the Enlightenment’s legacy —a legacy which includes the denial of the role of stories in making the world.

Yet as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown. The old tales by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses were bowdlerised and packed off to the nursery… It is hard, today, to imagine that the word of a poet was once feared by a king.

Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories. Through television, ?lm, novels and video games, we may be more thoroughly bombarded narrative material than any people that ever lived. What is peculiar, however, is the carelessness with which these stories are channelled at us — as entertainment, a distraction from daily life, something to hold our attention to the other side of the ad break. There is little sense that these things make up the equipment by which we navigate reality. On the other hand, there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders. These are not presented as stories at all, but as direct accounts of how the world is. Choose between competing versions, then ?ght with those who chose differently. The ensuing con?icts play out on early morning radio, in afternoon debates and late night television pundit wars. And yet, for all the noise, what is striking is how much the opposing sides agree on: all their stories are only variants of the larger storyof human centrality, of our ever-expanding control over ‘nature’, our right to perpetual economic growth, our ability to transcend all limits.

As you’d expect from reading the above, Andy and I have separate reasons for starting Purpos/ed. One of mine certainly centres around creating space(s) to encourage and enable people to air their own stories and powerful ideas. Collaboration and transparency are key. As the maxim goes, light is the best disinfectant and, as Paul Mason explains in the if-you-haven’t-read-it-yet-you-really-should Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, now (more than ever) ideas can acquire memetic status within hours rather than years and decades. We live in exciting, confusing but ultimately liberating times.

If we choose to, that is.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Jason A. Samfield

Social media, backlash and the nature of reality.

I Am Uneasy

There is no such thing as reality. There are stories that we tell one another, narratives that gain more or less traction and memetic phrases which help organise our experiences. As soon as such stories become less useful in the way of belief we can (and should) jettison them for ones that work better and that help us make sense of such experiences. That’s the Pragmatic philosophy to which I subscribe.

During times of fiscal instability and uncertainty societies naturally gravitate towards conservatism. This is evident both in the financial conservatism of public sector cuts but also in social conservatism – right down to retro designs in advertising. The 24-hour news industry feeds and catalyses this.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is, as Martin Weller puts it, the beginnings of a ‘backlash’ against newer (and particularly social) technologies:

The signs are that this year will be one marked by something of a backlash against social media/ web 2.0/ any internet stuff. I don’t mean from the traditional media, who’ve always been suspicious, but from people who know what they’re talking about and have been advocates. In other words, increasingly ‘us lot’ will be declaring that this stuff is peripheral, uncool, over- rated, etc.

I’d go further than this. There are always those (who call themselves) ‘thought-leaders’ who aim to be disruptive or, at least, contrarian who are always looking for something that will get them attention. All it takes is for someone to say that they were wrong about technology xyz for a feeding-frenzy of “I told you so” to take place. One competing story amongst many starts to appear ‘legitimate’.

It would seem incomprehensible to my 16 year-old self that I have absolutely no idea who is currently Number 1 in the singles chart. Last Saturday was the first time this season that I’ve watched the football programme ‘Match of the Day’. When it comes down to it all, reality is the coherence-through-storytelling that we paint as a veneer upon shared experience. To my mind, social media is one of the best ways I know to engage in such narratives.

I shall not be participating in the backlash.

Image CC BY-NC-SA daveknapik

What I Talk About When I Talk About ‘User Outcomes’: #1 – Douglas Adams, Feng Shui & controlling behaviours.

This is the first in the series of a series of occasional posts in which I attempt to explain, either through my own words or those of others, what I mean by my ongoing project of ‘improving user outcomes’. The title of this series is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, itself inspired by Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In September 1998 the late, great, Douglas Adams gave an off-the-cuff speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge. Whilst I’d recommend reading the whole thing, what I find fascinating about the following extract is the nuance in his approach. It’s a fantastic example of why our relationship with others and our environment is so complex – and why we often require metaphor as a lens:

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense – there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live – and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’

What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

I’d argue that there’s many such metaphors at work in our everyday life and that, in fact, almost everything we do is predicated upon cultural norms that colour our perception. This is known as the ‘theory-ladeness’ of observation and, taken to one extreme, would mean that we do, in fact, encounter the world entirely through metaphor.

What does this mean for user outcomes? Controlling metaphors means controlling behaviours.

Image CC-BY-SA Aditya Grandhi

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