Prensky's notion of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that
[a]s Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their "accent," that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today's older folk were "socialized" differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.
My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don't really bother with email and gather digital data like it's Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!
Fine. Except "digital" is not a language.
"Digital" is a way of conveying information. "Digital" is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor--taken up so widely in our cultural conversations--continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.
Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered "natives" by his definition, and not all old people can be considered "immigrants." When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we're really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.
Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.
The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture's dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven't come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky's--steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony--make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.
Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants--A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators' Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants...
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap