an essay published in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term "Digital natives
describe a new generation, born typically after 1980, who are inherently
familiar with and competent in using new technologies and feel at ease in the ”digital"
term caused a lot of excitement amongst politicians and companies, believing
that this new generation would reconcile our fatigued economies with growth by
innovating with their natural ICT skills. Many actors, especially NGOs
advocating for more child protection online, found out to their dismay that
this term was instrumental to block many potential actions (regulatory or
self-regulatory) by governments or businesses.
the term is present in the "Digital agenda
calls for listening more to these "Digital natives" and is discussed in
articles and blogs on the EC websites. Some people have pointed out the
oversimplification of such a term, but the recognition that this term is
misleading has not lead to any policy implications.
is a ”Digital native"? What skills should he/she typically have?
by Martin Schmalzried, Policy Officer and "Digital native"
was back in the early 1990s that personal computers started to enter the
households of many families. The arrival of operating systems such as Windows
3.1 made these computers more user-friendly and accessible to more than just
tech-savvy people. In these days, there
were some games running in Windows but most games, including the coolest ones,
still ran on DOS. DOS... a black screen
with only a "C:\”to welcome you and a flashing white cursor "_” waiting
for a command manually typed on your keyboard.
If you wanted to run a game, you had to learn the commands and more
often than not, even if you managed to find a way to access the right directory
and run the game, an error message would say that you had not enough memory, or
that the sound card was not configured... And there you were, a 12 year old
kid, finding a way to open and edit the "autoexec.bat” file or the "config.sys”
to add a line to make sure that the soundcard would work under DOS.
all this struggling, the effort would pay off. The first game I managed to
launch on DOS was DOOM I, one of the first First Person Shooter games, and boy
did I enjoy it... After that experience,
I got curious, started to explore menus and sub-menus, settings, options and
still today, my first reflex when I install a new application or sign up to a
new service is to check the "options” and "settings” tabs. I crashed the computer twice by clogging it
with too many games on one occasion and by infecting it with viruses on another
one and had to format and reinstall it twice as well since no one was tech-savvy
in my family.
the time I had reached the age of 15 and a second computer entered our
household, I was in charge of everything that was related to ICT: setting up a
LAN network, installing devices like printers, scanners, webcams, routers,
installing software... And with it, I
actually did develop this set of "skills” that digital natives supposedly have.
For instance I can now easily recognise whether a link on a web-page is
actually ever going to let me download something or whether I will end up being
kicked around from link to link eventually falling victim to a virus or a malware
of some sort.
in all, I could be a so called "digital native” but I'd rather be known as a
geek since I believe the "digital natives” term experienced a "paradigm shift”
in the last decade or so.
users never expected applications or devices to work on their first try just a
decade ago, by the time we reached the turn of the millennium, operating
systems such as Windows and Mac OS went out of their way to make things simpler
for users. "User friendly interfaces”
translated in applications running after a simple click, devices began to be
much more "plug and play”. This trend actually nipped the nascent digital
natives in the bud. On the other side,
programming and coding became increasingly complex and difficult. Back in the 1990s, it wasn't rare to find
programmers come up with a game all by themselves. Nowadays, programmers split their work into
many teams handling different aspects of a game focusing on the physical
engine, the AI, the gameplay, the sound etc...
Programming alone can only work for relatively small projects such as a
mobile phone app, but only pure geniuses armed with patience and a lot of time
can manage programming everything from start to finish.
new digital divide has therefore developed between the "super” geeks
who actually know the code and programming language, the "geeks” who
understand how things work and can solve most ICT related problems but do not
know programming, the "users” (supposedly digital natives) who enjoy
playing around with all kinds of new devices (smartphones, tablets,
ultrabooks,...) and consume content online (stream videos, surf on websites,
take part in social networking) and the digitally illiterate who don't
the new glossy interfaces on smartphones and tablets, children born in this
millennium representing the "new” generation have become for the most part pure
"passive consumers”. They play, chat, post pictures but when they fall victims
of clickjacking on a social network they are clueless as to how it happened or
what to do about it. Options and
settings menus are to them a "last resort” only when things don't spontaneously
natives” therefore do not really exist. They can "use” everything digital but
not necessarily in a responsible way and don't understand, even remotely, how
most of the things they use work. The term "digital naïves” suits them
this in mind, it is clear that we need to scale up policies meant not only at
protecting children but also to "push” them to go beyond the glossy interfaces
in order to guarantee that they really will develop the digital skills they are
supposed to "naturally” learn.
a conclusion, I invite any sceptical reader to present the following picture: http://xkcd.com/742/
to a minor see if they can explain the meaning of it. I personally doubt that many will be able to
deliver any convincing response.
Published on 03 Oct 2012
Updated on 16 Jan 2013