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Natives and immigrants – new words and the digital divide

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New Word of the Month
Natives and immigrants new words and the digital divide

digital native noun [C] /didzhit()l neitiv/
a person who has grown up in a world with digital technology (e.g. the Internet, mobile phones, etc.)
OPPOSITE:
digital immigrant /didzhit()l imigrnt/

‘AFP high tech crime centre head Kevin Zuccato said: "We realised the only way to do that effectively was to listen to digital natives, the young people of today and those born into the internet. It's almost programmed into their DNA how to use technology and how to navigate around the ocean that is the internet.” ’
(Daily Telegraph, Australia, 17th July 2008)

‘Most of us parents, on the other hand, qualify as digital immigrants trying to find our way through a bewildering new technological world that exists largely online.’
(Seattle Post Intelligencer, 27th June 2008)

Call me a dinosaur, but I remember a time when the only way to look up the meaning of a word was to grab a hefty book off the shelf, flick through the numerous pages, and run your finger hopefully down columns of alphabetically-arranged text. Now of course there are so many other ways to access dictionary entries – tap, click, and hey presto, the word you were looking for appears in seconds . . .

Though most of us, young or old, are still likely to have at least one printed dictionary in the house, the way we access other kinds of information has changed beyond all recognition. Do you still remember the days when you had to go to a library to research a school project? Or when your parents spent an entire day dragging you around electrical stores so that they could decide which washing machine to buy? And what about when you desperately needed to ring someone, but couldn’t find a ‘phone box’? Do you, on the other hand, find it impossible to visualise a world in which you couldn’t send a quick text, buy a dishwasher in half an hour from the comfort of your armchair, or google notes on Shakespeare? If you fit into the latter category, then you are a digital native. If, like me, you can identify with the former, then welcome to the ranks of the digital immigrants.

The expressions digital native and digital immigrant were coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky, an American writer and educational game designer. The idea underlying the two expressions is that a native is someone for whom the religion, language and culture of a country is entirely natural, whereas an immigrant to that country has to adapt and assimilate to the new home they’ve adopted. Prensky argues that younger generations are ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers and the Internet. Those of us not born into the digital world however, but who have adopted aspects of new technology at a later point in our lives, are ‘learners’ of that language. As learners, we differ in levels of speed and competence. The analogy continues further with what Prensky refers to as a digital accent. Just as the origins of non-native speakers may be echoed in their accents, digital immigrants are characterised by their tendency to keep one foot in the past and behave in ‘pre-digital’ ways. Examples of such digital accents are activities like printing out documents in hard copy rather than editing on screen, or following up an e-mail with a telephone call in order to check that the message arrived.

And of course digital natives and digital immigrants frequently live under one roof. Their contrasting behaviours can be vividly illustrated as follows: a 2008 teenager, the digital native, does his / her homework whilst listening to music, periodically searching for information online, instant messaging, and texting from a mobile phone. Said teenager’s parent, the digital immigrant, views this situation as inappropriate, pointing out the number of ‘distractions’ and suggesting that their offspring should go somewhere quiet in order to ‘focus’ . . .

Predictably, the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants is controversial, not least because the digital universe currently inhabited by digital natives was in fact conceived and created by digital immigrants! It also makes assertions that may not always be true, e.g. the idea that younger adults and children are always comfortable with technology, whereas older people are more likely to find it awkward.

However there is an even deeper and perhaps more convincing assertion – the belief, now sometimes referred to as digital nativism, that those who have grown up in the digital era are at an advantage, not only in terms of using technology, but because of enhanced cognitive skills developing from a multi-tasking, ‘always-on’ way of life.

Various expressions have emerged in recent years to describe this generation of people for whom knowledge has only ever been a mouse-click away. These include Net Generation (or N-Gen for short), Generation D (with D standing for digital), Google generation, and Screenagers (a blend of screen and teenager). The tendency for young people to be more technically savvy than their parents or elders is sometimes humorously referred to as the generation lap (a play on generation gap, the differences in opinions or behaviour between young and old). Lap is used in relation to its verb sense of significantly overtaking someone you are competing with in a race.

Such ideas relate to what has for some time now been described as the digital divide, the information gap between those people who use digital technology, and those who don’t. Though discussion of the digital divide often relates to identifying the differences between younger and older folk, it also operates on other levels, notably the distinction between people who have access to digital technology and those who don’t. The reasons for this can be racial, socioeconomic (rich vs. poor) or geographical (urban vs. rural).

Differences in technological access between developed and developing countries are often described as the global digital divide. One attempt to address such imbalances has given birth to a new sense for an established phrase. In American English the expression hole-in-the wall has been used since the mid-19th century to refer to a small, modest shop or restaurant. In British English, the same phrase has been in informal use since the early ’80s to refer to an automatic cash dispenser in an outside wall (an ATM in American English). Continuing that theme, in developing countries hole-in-the-wall has become the name for public-access computers, providing people with a window on mainstream technology and access to the World Wide Web.

By sharp contrast, those of us fortunate enough to have unhindered access to the digital universe should beware of a newly coined malaise – infobesity (a blend of information and obesity). Drawing a parallel with the negative consequences of unhealthy western diets, infobesity describes an inappropriate tendency to crave and indiscriminately digest the vast amounts of information now available at the click of a mouse. If you are infobese, you live on a ‘junk-food’ diet of low-quality or non-essential information.

Within the digital community, we’ve introduced terms which reflect a user’s perceived status: are you, for example, a newbie (someone new or inexperienced) or a knowbie (knowledgeable and experienced)? Do you belong to the ranks of the digerati (the technical experts, a sort of digital elite), or are you doing good work as a digilante (a kind of Internet-based crimefighter who tries to keep the Web free of spam and fraudulent activity). Digilante is formed from a blend of digital and vigilante (a person who voluntarily tries to catch criminals).

So these are just a selection from a number of new expressions emerging from the way we’ve divided and classified ourselves according to our digital experiences. And where do you fit in? Native or immigrant, as a reader of MED Magazine, the betting is you’re a digiphile (someone who enjoys and is competent in the digital universe) rather than a digiphobe (the opposite)!


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.

Macmillan English