This past Friday, WNYC’s On the Media aired a great interview with John Palfry, co-author of the new book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. According to Palfry and Urs Gasser, those born after 1980, or “digital natives,” think very differently from their elders, “digital immigrants.”
At 21 years of age, I fall comfortably into the former bracket. Still, I am proud to say that while I grew up with video games and cable TV, I remember a time without the Internet. (This may sound silly to you digital immigrants who can recall the thrill of the arrival of 8-tracks, but bear with me.) Until we subscribed to AOL sometime in my junior high years, it was off to my mom’s basement office if I wondered something—to consult the moldy Encyclopedia Britannica set (according to which the Soviet Union was still going strong).
I know these details are hardly impressive. While I can remember real card catalogs—made of wood! and paper!—I’ve never written a research paper of any significant length without Internet search engines and databases. As a result, I’m somewhat terrified of the ways my brain may be different from, say, Ken George’s. That said, I do feel I’ve grown up a bit differently than my cousin Molly, who at seven years old can show me a video on YouTube. I felt similarly bewildered (and old) when I heard Here & Now’s piece today on “digital dating violence.”
So what does this bewilderment, and my pride at being able to recall analog times, say about my attitude toward the Internet? Have I simply been infected with that hipsterish nostalgia for the times before one’s time, for the “authenticity” to be found in all things “out of style” (used books, vinyl, secondhand cardigans)? Is it an admission that I fear I spend too much time on the Internet, and wish to distance myself from it? Or, is it evidence that the general feeling remains that the Internet is an approximation of real life, not another part of it? That a newspaper is preferable to NYT.com, that face-to-face interaction is preferable to Facebook?
That’s a lot of question marks, but I have one more. Is this, as Palfry seems to think, a generational divide unlike any other we’ve seen in the past century? It seems that every generation fails in some way to understand the thinking of the next. But maybe the difference between the radio parents and their television children wasn’t anything like the generational differences we’re seeing today. Still, is the difference dramatic enough to put in cultural terms—”native” and “immigrant”?
Enough from me (if you haven’t already heard, my generation is also hopelessly self-involved and narcissistic). What do you think of Born Digital‘s premise? Does it ring true, or is all this theorizing on the generational divide along the digital/analog line much ado about nothing? Are you a digital native or immigrant, and what do you think of those on the other side?