About Digital Origins and Identities

Professor John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center, delivered the keynote address on “The Internet and University” at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society’s Internet & Society Conference titled “University — Knowledge Beyond Authority: What Is the Role of University in Cyberspace?” The core theme of his speech was that students coming into universities today are “digital natives” and fundamentally different in their use of technology than the “digital immigrants” who teach them.

Natives and immigrants – a great analogy which you must keep in mind as you review the general gist of his speech, which I had to cull from various sources since the whole speech is still not available online in entirely. Is this proof of the ‘digital immigrant’ status of the larger Harvard community?

The gist is as follows:
There are differences between being born digital versus learning to be digital. The four major attributes of natives are that they have digital identities, they multitask, they use digital media (both tools such as cameras as well as ‘channels’ such as flickr and youtube), and they have gone from being consumers to creators, thus creating a sort of “Semiotic Democracy”.

There are challenges posed by this new media including the digital divide, ethics and transparency. The question whether teachers, as digital immigrants should be reborn? How will pedagogical methods change?

Interesting so far. I was most interested in the ‘identity’ aspect of this speech, and think that the analogy fails when referring to immigrants being ‘reborn’. I word it differently and add another layer of distinction by extending the immigrant analogy.

Looking around me in the real world – or should we call that the analogue world now – I identify two kinds of immigrants.

Some immigrants remain loyal to their country of birth, defining their identity by their origin and origin alone; they support their country-of-birth’s cricket team; they make 1, sometimes more, pilgrimages a year to their country of birth, referring to it as ‘home’ notwithstanding that they pay mortgage in their adopted country; they socialise largely with people from their country of origin, making some, not many relationships and friendships with ‘natives’.

Others naturalise and go ‘native’. They understand that ‘home’ is where you pay mortgage, where you shower and change for work every morning and not a place where you visit 1 or 2 times a year to spend time with your parents and siblings. They learn to be ashamed at the cricket team of their adopted country being beaten by 3rd rate teams from elsewhere, as well as be ashamed when their country of birth loses to a new European team! They can look at both countries dispassionately but not detachedly; they remain closely involved with both countries personally and professionally. They build quasi-families and deep friendships with the ‘natives’, as well as retaining the close ties with other migrants from their country of origin. While they foster a complex, kaleidoscopic identity, they remain aware of their distance from both the countries, their difference from the citizens of both and forge their own path ahead.

In the digital world, this latter group of people, the ‘naturalised digital citizen‘ is somewhere between the ‘digital native’ and the ‘digital immigrant’. These naturalised digital citizens are fully paid up members of social networks from LinkedIn to Facebook connected to their teachers in some cases, fully paid up contributors to the blogosphere as writers and readers, Twittering on friends’ mobiles, bookmarking on del.icio.us and checking their Technorati ratings and ego-surfing to see how they control their online image, Googling on Google Scholar and quietly drafting a note to the product manager from a researcher’s point of view on how to improve the product. They also have real friends whom they know by face and with whom they have impromptu lunches and cinema visits; they write and publish in printed magazines too; they also sit in – and enjoy the tranquil surroundings of – the British Library thumbing through papers for their research, enjoying the limitations set by the fact that the Library staff will only bring out copies of the papers you want and request in advance and not whole journals. They shop online for books and packaged foods, while still buying their greens in the ‘real world’. For their favourite brands, they may use a 3-D model on the web to buy their next trousers, but when they want to buy something different, they go into a shop and try it out. They email and read feeds, but also write letters and read hardback books, sometimes reviewing them on Amazon. Everything short of – sometimes not – a fully paid up citizenship in the Second Life.

This is not being reborn, as Professor Palfrey puts it. This is ‘adaptation‘ on a smaller time scale than Darwinian adaptation may require. This is not a struggle for survival, but survival of the fittest.

I wonder what Professor Palfrey would think of this distinction. May be I should ask him… Meanwhile tell me what YOU think.

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