Marc Prensky coined the phrase “Digital Natives” back in 2001. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable way to explain the gap between those who have grown up “speaking” digital, and those who have had to learn to it as a second language, and in the specific context of Prensky’s thesis, those who have to teach digital. But is the label still meaningful or helpful? Has it been reduced to a marketing tag?
Bridging the Digital Divide
Since its inception, the term “Digital Native” has since been used to describe a key characteristic of Gen Z (otherwise known as “Generation I” or even “I-Gen”), those born since the early 1990s and who have only ever known smart phones, tablets, social media, digital music, video streaming, online search, instant chat and photo sharing.
But a generation later, I think the tag is increasingly redundant – it’s less about learning the “language of digital”, and more about engaging with the digital evolution: those who are the best “Digital Adaptors” will find it easiest to cope and survive in a constantly disruptive and disrupted world.
The key to being Digitally Adaptive is learning how to make the best use of the available technology, apps and social trends so that they work for you, and not against you. For anyone who says they have missed the digital boat, I would simply refer them to people like my parents’ generation (active retirees in their 80’s) who have had to learn to use tools such as Skype and Facebook long after their retirement.
Digital Can Be Learned
I recently asked a client of mine, a Gen Y entrepreneur, what the term “Digital Native” meant to him: “Someone born in the 1990s, who has used digital technology from early childhood.”
He did not think the description applied to him, even though there had been computers at home when he was growing up, because he had not used computers in school from day one, and because he had not really learned how to code. (In fact, given the choice, he would have probably learned computer programming instead of a mandatory foreign language.)
This is someone who prefers to use Facebook Messaging instead of e-mail or even SMS, and who is never without a smart phone and/or laptop, and works in an industry where digital technology has caused considerable disruption to the old business models, while introducing many new opportunities. So, even though he is not a “Digital Native”, he has learned to adapt and can navigate his way through the landscape.
Another acquaintance (Gen X entrepreneur) was far more bullish on digital evolution: “The only human skills required in the future that cannot be digitized or computerised are creativity and critical thinking. We won’t need to communicate via written words and numbers because machine learning will adapt to our requirements, anticipate our needs and do the calculations for us.”
His business is now part of the shared economy (one of the many “dialects” that digital natives speak) so he, too has learned to adapt.
However, the more significant developments are among baby-boomers. These are experienced entrepreneurs, business people and professionals who have embraced digital as part of their continuing personal development, and then applied the learning to create new products, services and business models that harness the power of digital. OK, so they may not be fluent in Emoji, and might not know what the coolest trending #hashtags are, but they have seen the possibilities presented by digital, and are embedding them in the way they innovate, create and manage new opportunities.
The Natives Are Restless
There have been many recent studies about the impact of “digital” on our lives – whether it is the paradox of multitasking, our shortening attention spans, the need to be constantly plugged in (and the fear of missing out…) and the gulf between our virtual and real lives.
I think the common theme is that digital has not necessarily made us smarter or cleverer – even though we have access to infinite information and a smart phone can do in seconds what might have taken several hours on a mainframe computer. Instead, digital natives (and those who have become “naturalised”, to stretch Presnky’s metaphor) are increasingly impatient, don’t appreciate that some things still take time, and are yet to realise that instant gratification not only makes us lazy but dulls our appreciation for new experiences.
Moreover, without an understanding or curiosity for how things really work (the UI/UX is all you need to know…), digital has not really empowered us to think for ourselves, nor explore the depths of what the technology might be able to do for us. Instead, we are reduced to the shallows of “Likes”, “Follows”, “Shares” and “Retweets” in the hope/expectation that someone will reciprocate. For example, I recently heard of a new business that writes on-line dating profiles for their clients. While outsourcing such tasks may be efficient for time-poor digital citizens, it suggests we are only prepared to engage in the process at a superficial level, and in doing so we risk making ourselves more digitally dependant.
This digital monomania afflicts young and old alike – witness senior citizens getting hooked on social media – and can become self-limiting, because our interactions with a touch screen and our on-line/virtual relationships are seen as ends in themselves.
Digital Survival Kit
In my own case, I would not be classified as a digital native – we certainly didn’t have computers at my school (the most high-tech we got was a language lab with reel-to-reel tape decks, cathode ray oscilloscopes in the science class, and photo screen printing in the art room). And the only coding I learned was BASIC, with the aid of a Sinclair ZX81 home computer.But at every stage of my career, I have had to keep up with (and in some cases, be an early adopter of) digital technologies, mostly through being self-taught and by learning from experience, as well as maintaining a natural curiosity whenever something new comes along. I would not describe myself as a technologist, but more like a tourist, who tries to learn a few words and phrases before they travel abroad.
In order to survive the digital deluge, here are a few things I do to keep abreast of current developments:
- Beta test new apps – developers are usually looking for beta testers, and it’s a great way to get access to stuff before anyone else, and often for free. I also attend product launches and workshops where developers and product managers can showcase what they are working on.
- Blogging etc. – apart from this weekly blog, and in addition to my social media accounts and social networking tools, I also maintain a Bandcamp account and SoundCloud page, where I upload my own compositions (many of which are created with iOS apps)
- Meet-ups – I attend numerous meet-ups for startups, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation, to network, to learn about new ideas and to watch pitches in action (e.g., events organised and promoted by Startup Victoria)
- On-line “How To” courses – YouTube and user forums are useful sources of instructional guides on how to use new apps, software and hardware (especially music, video and graphic design tools). For more in-depth content, I sometimes dip into on-line libraries from General Assembly and SitePoint
- Hackathons – In recent months I participated in a FinTech weekend hackathon, and took part in a MedTech startup competition. They took me out of my comfort zone, exposed me to new ideas, introduced me to some brilliant people and provided insights on alternative perspectives which I might not otherwise have considered
- Newsletters – There’s loads of stuff out there, but a few industry newsletters worth scanning on a regular basis are Beta.List, Gizmag and Mantra – but no doubt you will find similar publications that serve your needs. And using aggregation tools and curation apps can help you to manage the information flow
- Personal development – underpinning this digital immersion (and this may sound counter-intuitive!) I participate in alternative real-world education and training communities such as the Slow School of Business. This helps to keep me grounded (theory is great, but what practical things can we do?) and also provides some context for how the digital “learning” can be applied to collaboration, co-creation and community projects.
Don’t be a Digital Dropout
I’m not saying that all things digital are wonderful – and certainly, there is much that is unhealthy in the way digital impinges on our ability to think for ourselves – but it doesn’t pay to ignore it completely. By all means, ration your use of digital tools and devices, schedule time when you go totally off-line, and learn to switch from doing task-oriented activities to purely creative or abstract “play” alongside your digital engagement. Above all, find a way to embrace digital that works for you, establish a “digital persona” that you are comfortable with, get advice from people you trust, and perhaps like a tourist, learn to blend in….
Next week: Victorian Government’s plan for Innovation & Entrepreneurship