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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Digital Natives Vs. Digital Migrants

An interesting essay by Mark Prensky (“On the Horizon” - NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001) caught my attention recently as it added some useful vocabulary to the increasing lexicon of digital media jargon. The essay sought to further differentiate the generational divide in our digital media saturated world by proposing that there are two distinct groups actively participating on the connected side of the digital divide. These are the Digital Natives and the Digital Migrants.Digital Natives, it proposes, are those who have grown up with digital technology and simply take it for granted. It is a seamless part of their lives and more worryingly, it is critical to their daily lives. A recent example of a Digital Native was relayed in the Sunday Times recently the story of a teenage girl who journeyed 5 miles to her college only to realise that she had forgotten her mobile phone. So important was it to her, that she traveled back home to retrieve it.

She happily admitted that her mobile phone was almost an extension of herself, a completely necessity to have on her person at all times. These Digital Natives, one could argue, are part of Generation Y. But this essay highlights that where as before they were regarded as technically savvy, now they are becoming technically-needy.

On the same side, but with different outlooks, are the Digital Migrants. These are the older generation - 25 and up - who remember the days before digital. Many of them remember dialing analogue phones, watching black and white televisions and purchasing their first VCR. Collectively, they encompass Generation X and the Baby Boomers. Technology has reluctantly become an integral part of their lives – be it email, the web, DVDs or mobile phones. They are still getting their heads around the changes and remember with nostalgia the days when they were non-contactable, save for checking in at a pay phone.

The other notable difference between the two groups is that the Digital Natives are moving in leaps and bounds. They adapt much more quickly to new technologies; they spend increasingly more time online then engaging in more passive activities such as watching television or going to the cinema and they are much more intellectually demanding then they are given credit for. This differentiation yet again puts the kibosh on the manufactured claim that media is dumbing down and thus so are our kids. On the contrary, television drama, games and independent cinema are in fact becoming much more sophisticated with increasingly complicated plotlines expanding across many media platforms.

One need only take the example of ABC's Lost, which as well as being an incredibly challenging programme on a cerebral level, has now crossed into various formats, both online and offline, pushing further the boundaries between what is real and what is fiction. The fictional book “Bad Twin” written by one of the fictional characters on the programme, Gary Troup, is now on the New York Times bestseller list. Gary Troup, of course, is an anagram for purgatory giving avid viewers a further clue in the puzzle of the labyrinthine plot of Lost.

The show also has seen more online banter then any show previously and this again is fuelled by the remarkably clever online websites that the producers have created to further blur the lines of reality and fiction. Needless to say, this has left many Digital Migrants baffled.So it seems that we may be heading toward a brave new world where the natives are the pioneers and the migrants merely by-standers looking for crumbs from the table. So while the Digital Migrants still cling to their passive entertainments, the Digital Natives are embracing the New Medium and shaping it as they go along. Myspace.com, Youtube.com, Bebo.com the more you read about their harmful and malignant influence in the passive medium of the newspapers, the more you know that the divide is growing wider between the pioneering Natives and the bewildered Migrants. The choice now is which side you take.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 10:38 a.m.

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