Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

So, this blog is being set up for my ENGL 295 class at BYU. We've talked in class about how important it is so get your academic ideas out in the digital world. I've been thinking this is a really good idea. I like the idea of having a blog where I can sort of "publish" my academic ideas (is that a bit nerdy? I don't really care). I mean, how frustrating was it last semester when I wrote that very good paper about The Eternal Feminine archetype in Western Literature and I really had no record of my thought processes, besides a few scattered Word documents on my laptop? So, that's the story of this here blog, and I hope this here blog proves to be worthwhile (as well as the fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. Burton).

What I'm working on now is a research paper about the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant metaphor that is being applied to new media, social networking, and really technology in general. I did a previous paper studying what I labeled as the "Immigrant Dichotomy" in two American short stories. The first story I analyzed was Abraham Cahan's "A Sweat-Shop Romance," written in 1895. Basically, this story is not meant to present immigrants as a flat social group, but rather presents two types of immigrants: those who deal with American society based on an Americanized social identity, and those who deal with society based on an ethnic identity. The culmination of the story is when a character basically chooses that she will live her life based on her ethnic identity, and therefore gains more self-respect. The second story I studied was Jhumpa Lahiri's "This Blessed House," where the immigrant dichotomy is embodied in a married couple. In the end, the husband bows to his wife's desire to deal with society based on an Americanized social identity, but the story leaves you with the idea that the marriage is empty, and really quite devoid of inherent respect. The implication of this is that perhaps modern American society should deal with allowing immigrants the choice and the opportunity to incorporate their ethnic identity into their dealings with society.

Now that my class is focusing on new media and the digital age, I really want to superimpose the Native/Immigrant dichotomy onto new technology. Actually, this has already been done for me, because this metaphor is widely used to describe kids who perhaps grow up with a sort of "inherent" knowledge about digital media, and their parents, who have to learn the language of technology, and therefore are immigrants. Now, I think the thesis I am going to be working on is that the digital native/immigrant dichotomy is really quite misleading or even incorrect in describing how people deal with technology. Here's why:

1. Immigrants used to be the ones who would define their newly "Native" children. Now, Native children tend to define their parents' status as an "Immigrant." Why? This is inconsistent with how the metaphor has been treated.

2. Natives usually do not easily "speak the language" of digital media. Some types of technology they may have a good grip on, but many times they lack skills in many areas. In this way, perhaps we are all Digital Immigrants: we incorporate parts of the New society, but also tend to shun the things we don't necessarily understand. It's like Chicano Spanish: immigrants use the English they like, but cling to Spanish. Some people seen as "Natives" will use the technology that they like...but they don't necessarily "know" everything.

3. Overarching question: is comparaing digital media to something like language a valid metaphor? Do we learn these kinds of skills in the same way that people learn languages? Is saying that digital immigrants will always have a digital "accent" comparable to how other immigrants retain some of their social identity? Maybe not.


  1. I really like your "complications" section...well done! Good job finding the problems with what could've been an easy argument to prove! So I have a few comments myself, take them or leave them : )! YES YES YES to #3, that is genius! The "language" of digital and analogue. We can go through a website and understand the outcome but we don't know how it got there. Comparable to being able to read a language, understand the gist it's needed for but you can't speak it (example: me and French). Or a better way to look at it is a native is one who grows up speaking the language but doesn't understand why we have an "s" at the end of a French word, yet don't say the "sss" sound (like a silent "e") we just know it works so we can get by.
    Secondly, is the fact that we are trying to make the digital world accessible to the "immigrant" generation necessarily a bad thing? I think it's a good thing because it makes use of the internet SO much easier. "If you want this press here." So you could look at the side that the digital era has made digital access easier for our current generation.
    Not brilliant thoughts but here it is!

  2. I have to say, I love your topic.

    I'm not sure the immigrant to native thing is so unusual. Real immigrants give birth to children who are then native, and become more and more native, through the generations. In the same way, my grandparents are total digital immigrants, my parents are a little more at home online, and I am much more competent, but I assume my children will be even more fluent.

    To me, the issue is one more of a changing landscape. Physical immigrants move to a physical space, and once there, they are THERE, though it will take a while to completely adapt. However, the online world is constantly changing, shifting. Maybe no one can be truly a native, because there are no permanent landmarks. You cannot build a home on shifting ground.

    Perhaps no one can stay a native--we grow up with blogger and wikipedia and facebook, but a few years down the road, it may be something else entirely, and we'll still be griping about the good old days and how we don't understand the newfangled stuff out there today. Maybe you start a native, and become an immigrant.

  3. The success of the immigrant is dependant a lot on how well they are accepted by the new cultural norms. They don't necessarily need to completely abandon pride in their old culture and their self respect but do need to be able to adjust enough to get along with the new people but they do need to be able to communicate, and language is essential to communication! If they don't learn the language they miss out on the conversation.

    People that don't participate in social networking need to rely on the translation/skewed interpretation of others for a conversation they would otherwise not have access to and are unable to contribute directly.