Digital Natives or Digitally Naive?

On Generations and Assumptions and Evolution

Posted by Cerstin Mahlow on May 22, 2021

As a member of the Generation X, I also carry the attribute of a "digital immigrant." I grew up in a rather non-digital world and then during school and studies moved into this digital world and even am assumed to have shaped it while learning how to navigate it. The generation before, the Boomers actually are the ones who built this digital world, the Web and all that stuff.

My nieces, born after 2000, belong to the Generation Z; they are "digital natives." Or aren't they?

The digital natives are assumed to enter university this year or the next at the very latest. They are assumed to have been grown up in a digital world and thus to know everything about tools and processes and such. They don't have to learn about algorithms, it's in their blood. Or at least in their finger tips as they navigate the digitized world on their smartphones. Digital natives are the object of very high hopes as they know everything about this brave new world. In contrast, we digital immigrants had to learn everything painstakingly and maybe do not understand everything correctly (but we also developed these things!). Digital natives are also somewhat scary: one will have to adjust teaching as they already know about everything, they are familiar with all these digital skills and they surely outperform their teachers very easily. Or don't they?

Technology is evolving at a high pace and it seems that the acceleration is even growing. Technology always had an impact on everyday live; whether for the good or for the bad. And "the younger generation" always was found to adapt more easily, to manage new tools without having to consult lengthy operating instructions, to outperform their parents. And almost always they could not explain how these new things actually work or are constructed, they just operate them somewhat intuitively. While the parent generation needed some time to adjust, to find a way to cognitively connect these new tools with common concepts and objects.

And here is the challenge for digital natives and digital immigrants: at the moment Generation X is not digitally transforming the world, but rather digitizing (turning real-world objects into bits and bytes) and digitalizing (shifting real-world processes into the virtual or "the cloud" making use of features of those digitized objects) it. Which means that we are still rather mimicking common features and processes known from the analogue world. Maybe we still need some reminiscence from yesterday to feel comfortable in today's world. What is the reason to stick to the centuries-old concept of pages for documents? Why does one have to actively hit "save" to preserve the current status of a text? Why do I have to activate "turn on editing" for a learning management system, that "knows" that my role as teacher comes with editing power? Did you ever wonder about the symbols for accepting and refusing/ending a call?

We still make references to "old" concepts and processes we grew up with. When looking at the next generation, we see them navigating weird looking websites by tapping and clicking here and there and voilà where was the problem? Do you sometimes feel like your parents, lost in front of the new video recorder looking at you hitting buttons and turning wheels without being able to explain why? It's just in your fingers, you know what to do, where is the problem?

The question remains: Does one need to know about algorithms and data structures? Does one have to know the origins of these strange symbols one has to click for some actions? What is the benefit when you know about folders and files and versions? Maybe at the moment you would understand some of these arbitrary symbols in menus, you could interact better with Generation X and Boomers who talk about strange things like file systems and naming conventions. But these are things from the past not needed any longer?

Actually, I'm sure that a digitally transformed world operates on nothing but algorithms and data structures. In the end, also black boxes like language models do consist of these things. So one has to know about them to interact with artificial intelligence in an informed way, to actually use them as a power tool and don't let them control you. And this is quite different from practical knowledge needed to operate the latest generation of smartphones and web forms in a digitally naive way.

But then, I'm a member of the Generation X.