A common problem among people in my age bracket who have kids in my children’s’ age bracket is getting the little buggers off the screens and into the yard to “play” like we did in the olden days. On the brighter side, although I regret their screen-obsession (an ironic assessment, I know, since I am of course reporting this via the laptop that I spend most of the day peering into), I wonder if it is an indication that theirs is the generation that will actually maximize the potentials of digital technology in a way that current grown-ups (and I use the term lightly to include the college students that I teach and who are supposed to be whiz-bang with the digital tech but just aren’t) just can’t.
I refrain from calling either of these groups “digital natives” since the concept is a slippery one, and not one that really indicates the kind of facility that it’s supposed to. Through time the word “native” has often (and often unfairly) been linked to being backwards, unsophisticated, but I accept that use in this application. In my experience, many (most?) so-called digital natives are downright uncivilized. They diddle with social media and half-heartedly make use of the awesome power of the internet for what passes as research.
These are ideas that we bandied about in the digital humanities institute at GMU a few weeks ago, mostly in context of our own struggles, as “digital immigrants,” to catch up and keep up while expecting that the students we teach should cotton to these new methods–yet we rarely see them blazing the path we expect. Digital projects also call for a completely different approach to working method, which is yet another a challenge added to the problem of just catching up. Like other scholars in the humanities, historians traditionally work alone; reasearch and writing are solitary ventures. But digital projects typically require a collaboration among different sorts of experts; the collaborative nature is really part of the deal, and might be, for some of us, a bigger hurdle than learning how to map and mine our data.
And that brings me back to my observations of my kids. One of the most productive things they will have accomplished this summer is the creation of a back story–sort of the big mythology–of a world that a friend built on his server for a game that they play jointly, yet separately, scattered across town in their own homes. These are a bunch of 14-year-old boys, who had linked up by Skype to talk through changes they were making to their shared Google Document. Quality of the narrative aside, it really struck me to watch these boys easily make effective great use of several tools, collaboratively, in a highly creative effort which looked easy, fun, profitable and productive (relatively speaking). At least a few of them, born into a digital world, are already over its low-fruit applications (one, when asked if he wanted to join Facebook, responded, “Why? It’s just a bunch of grown-ups talking about babies”). Maybe it is this next group that will really start to harness the possibilities of the technology and grow up with the collaborative mentality that is such a stumbling block for old-timers like me. I suppose time will tell.
Note: the image above of happy teens around a laptop is not mine, nor are any of those people my children. The photo comes from an article on Preventionnet.com and it explains how use of social media among teens leads to alcoholism or something.