Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Digital natives vs. digital tourists

I spent the weekend in Chicago as a very fortunate attendee at ORDcamp, an annual unconference that's the brainchild of +Brian Fitzpatrick and +Zach Kaplan. I've got several things I want to write about as a result of the many wonderful sessions – being surrounded by a couple hundred fascinating people is apparently what I needed to get back on the blogging horse. It's good to be back!

An early session I attended was titled "Raising digital natives"; most in the room were parents, and we kicked things off by going around the room introducing ourselves and saying a few words about what the topic meant to us. One by one, parents (most of whom had children in the 3-6 range) expressed concern about technology. (Keep in mind, this was a very technically literate group.) Statements about wanting to limit screen time, avoid television altogether, restrict video games, etc. abounded. Then it was my turn to introduce myself.

That's when I realized: I don't want to restrict any of those things for my children. I absolutely want them to find balance, they must do homework and chores first, and my wife and I rely on Common Sense Media for help gauging whether certain materials are appropriate for our kids, but the fears expressed by several in the room about the potential harm that could come from exposing their children to technology are not mine. Not at all. I started by saying that I want my kids to be hackers. I want them to be frustrated by the way information is presented to them and be motivated to learn how to change it. I want them to visualize a tool – a program, a device, whatever – and then make it.

At some point during the session, it occurred to me that what we were talking about was not a digital native in the sense I thought of a native; we were talking about a digital tourist. Natives know the lay of the land, they know all the secrets, and they know what makes their area special. Tourists rarely get below the surface – they may enjoy the place they're visiting, but they rarely know what makes it tick.

I want my kids to be natives when it comes to the technology that increasingly surrounds them. Digital tourists (I doubt this term is new or unique to me, but I don't believe I'd heard it before) will be able to use a smart phone, a computer, or some other technology, but they won't really understand them, and they definitely won't be able to change or improve them. Natives, on the other hand, will see beyond the surface, appreciate the utility these tools provide, but also see their flaws, and over time be motivated to improve them.

To be clear, I don't think this means that my kids all have to become computer scientists. They could be artists, writers, designers, or something else entirely. But I'm certain that kids who develop the skills to shape the world around them through technology (in whatever form that takes) will have a huge advantage as they grow up. Understanding that the world around them is in fact changeable is a big first step.

One parent in the room was frustrated by this, because she said she didn't understand how computers worked, so how could she help her kids understand them? I'm sure that's daunting for some – and I certainly have a huge advantage as I've been tinkering with computers for over 30 years now – but I don't think this is as hard as it seems. There's no rule that says you have to know the answer to the questions you ask. "How do you think the DVR works?" to a kid who wants to watch a show they've recorded is a good exercise to get them to think about the inner workings of a hard drive (what does it mean to record a tv show?), a video signal (how would you change the channel? where is the video coming from?), a program guide (how does TiVo know what's showing and when?), and a TV (how does the TiVo send the recording to the TV?). "How does the car's GPS work?" is a great time to talk about satellites (how does the car know where it is?), traffic data (where does it come from?), routing (how does the computer know which roads to recommend?) and data visualization (is the info presented in a way that's useful? how would you make it better?).

Whether you know the answers to those questions doesn't matter at all; it's the act of asking the question that matters. And if you want to actually find the answers to some of these questions, check out YouTube. It's great for stuff like this:

Several years ago I discovered that my oldest son (then 9) had figured out how to bypass the parental controls on one of our computers in order to play some Flash games his friends had told him about. While that led to a long conversation about responsibility, it's nevertheless exactly the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity that I want to encourage. They're not natives yet, but they're on their way. And before too long I expect they'll be telling me more about the world around us than I can tell them. I can't wait.


  1. Good stuff Rick. With two kids in the exact age range you describe, this is right in our family's wheelhouse. Appreciate the thought provoking sentiments here.

  2. I wonder what the concerns of the other parents were. Mine are less about content than about understanding our tools and our relationship to them, but my concerns are valid for adults as well as for children.

    For example, No. 1 Daughter has an iPod and I have an iPhone; I expect that we should both be able to control our Facebook addiction enough to eat dinner with the family. Or an example from my work life: limits in the current program require a human work-around, but this does not necessarily mean that the human work-around is optimal or should be tolerated; otherwise, we reduce ourselves to slaves of the machine.

  3. I assume you've read Marc Prensky's paper, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, from 2001, which is I believe where the phrase Digital Native was coined. It is a fascinating paper which has shaped my thinking about education and technology for years.


    However, being a person who has programmed computers since the late 1960s and been on the Internet since the early 1980s, I sometimes call myself a digital aborigine.

    My one suggestion to parents about technology is that kids should be allowed to play any computer game they can write. This got my kids to start programming in kindergarten. None of them really stayed with it, but it has helped shaped their relationship to technology. Now, with the Raspberry Pi on the scene, I'm tended to modify it to being able to play any game they can build. My youngest wants to take a Raspberry Pi and make a tablet out of it, but that looks like it is still too big a project.