Who's Afraid of Digital Natives?
Let's not get intimidated by kids and their Internet savvy.
There's a telling episode about a quarter of the way into Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson's impassioned manifesto on the way digital tools should transform how we learn and work. Davidson is—well, it's hard to say what she is. Her official title is the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She is also the co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, "a network of innovators dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age."
Davidson was doing whatever it is that she does at work one morning when her colleagues' kids, three 9-year-olds released from school on a snow day, began playing a video game in a nearby office. This delighted Davidson. In line with her unconventional job description, she likes anything that departs from the customary way of doing things, especially the customary way of educating children. At the end of the day, after they'd spent eight straight hours playing LittleBigPlanet, Davidson intercepted the kids, "eager to hear all that they had learned in a day of the kind of interactive, challenging game play that we were pushing as the next frontier of learning."
"What did you learn today?" she asked brightly. Their answer was not what she was hoping for. They "dissolved into helpless, hysterical laughter." Nothing, they told her. "You didn't learn anything?" Davidson tried again. "No! No!" The kids laughed some more. "No way." Davidson returned to her office, feeling crushed. But she soon rallied: These children have been so mishandled by traditional schools, she decided, that they don't know what learning is.
Another interlocutor might have taken the kids at their word: They did not actually learn much from their day sitting in front of the screen. But the author's response is classic Davidson. She is easily moved to rapture and to dismay, propelled by an enthusiasm for anything new and digital and by an almost allergic aversion to any practices or artifacts from the pre-Internet era. Nor does she have much use for people born before 1980. The inhabitants and the knowledge of the past are merely obstacles to be trampled in the headlong rush toward an interactive, connected, collaborative future. This future, as Davidson imagines it, is one in which games replace books, online collaboration replaces individual effort, and "crowdsourced" verdicts replace expertise. Electronic media have turned all of society's institutions on their heads, and in this topsy-turvy new world it is the young who will lead the old, the students who will instruct the teachers, the interns who will oversee the bosses. Adults should be taking their cues from children (except, apparently, when children don't say what we want them to).
Davidson's youth worship, though extreme, is common these days among those who write about technology and society. Individuals born after the dawn of the Internet are not the same as you and me, goes the now-familiar refrain. As a result of their lifelong immersion in electronic media, young people's brains are "wired differently," and they require different schools, different workplaces, and different social arrangements from the ones we have. They are described, with more than a little envy, as "digital natives," effortlessly at home in an electronic universe, while we adults are "digital immigrants," benighted arrivals from the Old World doomed to stutter in a foreign tongue.
But before this view calcifies into common wisdom, it's worth examining whether it's an accurate or useful understanding of generational change. Thinkers like Davidson who insist on difference and disjunction, on a chasm between then and now, us and them, overlook important continuities that call such accounts into serious question. In particular, Davidson's claim that young people can, and should, pay attention in new and different ways doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives and the forthcoming Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.