Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Siva Vaidhyanathan on the ‘Generational Myth’

September 16th, 2008 by Seb Chan

In a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, former NYU professor and Copyright reform activist Siva Vaidhyanathan writes a provocative essay against the notion of ‘digital natives’ arguing the term and any idea of a ‘generational shift’ is ludicrous and masks the very real diversity in skills, knowledge and behaviours amongst users of digital technologies.

As a professor, I am in the constant company of 18- to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.

Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number who can’t deal with computers at all. A few lack mobile phones. Many can’t afford any gizmos and resent assignments that demand digital work. Many use Facebook and MySpace because they are easy and fun, not because they are powerful (which, of course, they are not). And almost none know how to program or even code text with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Only a handful come to college with a sense of how the Internet fundamentally differs from the other major media platforms in daily life.

College students in America are not as “digital” as we might wish to pretend. And even at elite universities, many are not rich enough. All this mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won’t read books are just not true.

At times I’ve been as guilty as anyone of generalising – usually to make a point or support an argument about the need to invest in, and experiment with, new forms of social technologies – but as Vaidyanathan and others like Eszter Hargittai consistently demonstrate, such generalisations often end up ill-serving the very constituents that they are made about – that is, young people.

On my blog, Sivacracy, Elizabeth Losh, writing director of the humanities core course at the University of California at Irvine and author of the forthcoming Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009), kept the online conversation going: “Unlike many in today’s supposed ‘digital generation,’ we learned real programming skills — with punch cards in the beginning — from the time we were in elementary school. What passes for ‘media literacy’ now is often nothing more than teaching kids to make prepackaged PowerPoint presentations.” Losh also pointed out that the supposed existence of a digital generation has had an impact on education, as distance-learning corporations with bells-and-whistles technology get public attention while traditional classroom teaching is ignored.

Once we assume that all young people love certain forms of interaction and hate others, we forge policies and design systems and devices that match those presumptions. By doing so, we either pander to some marketing cliché or force an otherwise diverse group of potential users into a one-size-fits-all system that might not meet their needs. Then, lo and behold, young people rush to adapt to those changes that we assumed all along that they wanted. More precisely, we take actions like rushing to digitize entire state-university library systems with an emphasis on speed and size rather than on quality and utility.

Eszter Hargittai’s work on social network participation (for example in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication) and especially her 2008 paperfor the Web Use Project with Gina Walejeko show that skills are far from universal.

Hargittai explained why we tend to overestimate the digital skills of young people: “I think the assumption is that if [digital technology] was available from a young age for them, then they can use it better. Also, the people who tend to comment about technology use tend to be either academics or journalists or techies, and these three groups tend to understand some of these new developments better than the average person. Ask your average 18-year-old: Does he know what RSS means? And he won’t.”

Now none of this should really be all that new to us.

Instead it is a reminder that we need to be careful in putting the ‘technology’ before our actual users, audiences and communities, however we might like to segment them. We might do well to look at the recent reports of the World Internet Project which are far less optimistic than ‘market research’ reports on internet usage in different countries. For Australia, then whilst internet usage is indeed high amongst most age groups (the exception being the over 65s) it is far from universal, nor are most of the highly technically literate behaviours we often speak about as ‘norms’ amongst younger users all that popular.

There are great opportunities here for museums, especially technology and science museums, to recast their roles as trainers and educators, helping communities build their digital skills and find relevance in digital environments. Likewise there is plenty to support the notion that we need to be continually experimenting with ensuring our ‘findability’ within new communication environments (social networking services), as interest in other communication channels changes. And, as I have been emphasising in my recent workshops, our collections and content needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can be taken up and reused in a multitude of different ways by different communities of users.

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