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.

20 thoughts on “About Digital Origins and Identities

  1. Interesting, one can look at this from different perspectives. Some thoughts:
    1. One more characteristic of the native, or perhaps the “super-native”: S/he spends a fair bit of time on complex MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or simply, Second Life (Linden Lab), and make money (or to say it in a slightly different way to highlight a subtle difference – “make a living”) there.

    2. If one was to broaden the perspective a bit, into the context of the emergence of the knowledge worker/ knowledge economy (this is a pet theory of mine, mea culpa!), then one can also perhaps say that this is part of the formation of a working social/ hierarchical structure. Typically, such a structure would have the “creatives” at the top, and the “processors” at the bottom, with aggregators and manipulators in between. This sort of structure is mirrored quite nicely on the WWW

    3. Refer William Gibson – Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition for first and latest versions of the above (digital vs. meatspace, native vs. immigrant, pro vs. amateur)

    4. Another perspective is the latest 3 generations within the US – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. Gen Xers tend to typically show patterns similar to your “naturalized digi-citizens” while the Gen Yers are more typically the digital natives.

    5. Final interesting proposition is to consider the reverse flow of entities i.e. the emergence of AI and AI-type patterns from the Web into meatspace in the form of…robots (yes, I confess to watching a bit of 2010-The Year We Make Contact on cable this week!). So what will that hierarchy emerge out to be? Perhaps a bit of feudal Japan/ India combined with some key aspects of the human knowledge economy?!

  2. Interesting, one can look at this from different perspectives. Some thoughts:
    1. One more characteristic of the native, or perhaps the “super-native”: S/he spends a fair bit of time on complex MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or simply, Second Life (Linden Lab), and make money (or to say it in a slightly different way to highlight a subtle difference – “make a living”) there.

    2. If one was to broaden the perspective a bit, into the context of the emergence of the knowledge worker/ knowledge economy (this is a pet theory of mine, mea culpa!), then one can also perhaps say that this is part of the formation of a working social/ hierarchical structure. Typically, such a structure would have the “creatives” at the top, and the “processors” at the bottom, with aggregators and manipulators in between. This sort of structure is mirrored quite nicely on the WWW

    3. Refer William Gibson – Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition for first and latest versions of the above (digital vs. meatspace, native vs. immigrant, pro vs. amateur)

    4. Another perspective is the latest 3 generations within the US – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. Gen Xers tend to typically show patterns similar to your “naturalized digi-citizens” while the Gen Yers are more typically the digital natives.

    5. Final interesting proposition is to consider the reverse flow of entities i.e. the emergence of AI and AI-type patterns from the Web into meatspace in the form of…robots (yes, I confess to watching a bit of 2010-The Year We Make Contact on cable this week!). So what will that hierarchy emerge out to be? Perhaps a bit of feudal Japan/ India combined with some key aspects of the human knowledge economy?!

  3. Interesting, one can look at this from different perspectives. Some thoughts:
    1. One more characteristic of the native, or perhaps the “super-native”: S/he spends a fair bit of time on complex MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or simply, Second Life (Linden Lab), and make money (or to say it in a slightly different way to highlight a subtle difference – “make a living”) there.

    2. If one was to broaden the perspective a bit, into the context of the emergence of the knowledge worker/ knowledge economy (this is a pet theory of mine, mea culpa!), then one can also perhaps say that this is part of the formation of a working social/ hierarchical structure. Typically, such a structure would have the “creatives” at the top, and the “processors” at the bottom, with aggregators and manipulators in between. This sort of structure is mirrored quite nicely on the WWW

    3. Refer William Gibson – Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition for first and latest versions of the above (digital vs. meatspace, native vs. immigrant, pro vs. amateur)

    4. Another perspective is the latest 3 generations within the US – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. Gen Xers tend to typically show patterns similar to your “naturalized digi-citizens” while the Gen Yers are more typically the digital natives.

    5. Final interesting proposition is to consider the reverse flow of entities i.e. the emergence of AI and AI-type patterns from the Web into meatspace in the form of…robots (yes, I confess to watching a bit of 2010-The Year We Make Contact on cable this week!). So what will that hierarchy emerge out to be? Perhaps a bit of feudal Japan/ India combined with some key aspects of the human knowledge economy?!

  4. Sirius: Thanks for your imaginative and sometimes rather interesting (in quotes) comments 🙂 Here are my thoughts.

    1. This is captured in the attributes that the natives have digital identities and use digital media in many different ways.
    2. I think that segmentation could be applied equally to natives, immigrants and naturalised citizenry. Either I have not understood your point or it really IS on a tangent…
    3. Thanks. I have been so tied up that I still have not used an Amazon book voucher given me on my birthday! It needs utilisation, pronto.
    4. That would map nicely. I know Palfrey’s comment was probably mainly in the academic context, but seeing my own ‘teachers’, I can see many Gen-X folks fit nicely with my description.
    5. Perhaps those robots will teach the natives one day? Soon?

    Thanks again.

  5. Sirius: Thanks for your imaginative and sometimes rather interesting (in quotes) comments 🙂 Here are my thoughts.

    1. This is captured in the attributes that the natives have digital identities and use digital media in many different ways.
    2. I think that segmentation could be applied equally to natives, immigrants and naturalised citizenry. Either I have not understood your point or it really IS on a tangent…
    3. Thanks. I have been so tied up that I still have not used an Amazon book voucher given me on my birthday! It needs utilisation, pronto.
    4. That would map nicely. I know Palfrey’s comment was probably mainly in the academic context, but seeing my own ‘teachers’, I can see many Gen-X folks fit nicely with my description.
    5. Perhaps those robots will teach the natives one day? Soon?

    Thanks again.

  6. Sirius: Thanks for your imaginative and sometimes rather interesting (in quotes) comments 🙂 Here are my thoughts.

    1. This is captured in the attributes that the natives have digital identities and use digital media in many different ways.
    2. I think that segmentation could be applied equally to natives, immigrants and naturalised citizenry. Either I have not understood your point or it really IS on a tangent…
    3. Thanks. I have been so tied up that I still have not used an Amazon book voucher given me on my birthday! It needs utilisation, pronto.
    4. That would map nicely. I know Palfrey’s comment was probably mainly in the academic context, but seeing my own ‘teachers’, I can see many Gen-X folks fit nicely with my description.
    5. Perhaps those robots will teach the natives one day? Soon?

    Thanks again.

  7. Generally agree that digital natives and immigrants can be segregated by age, as the natives grew up after the technology had been invented while the immigrants had to exist without and then voluntarily make an effort to learn and embrace it. Many have successfully transitioned and adapted, and I believe many of those people are pushing the boundaries of and extracting more from the technologies than the natives, because like successful immigrants in the biological/geographical realm, they are innately the types of people that naturally apply themselves to the maximum extent, regardless of the arena in which their efforts are put forth. Trying to communicate with distant acquaintances, or to study at foreign universities, or to make a new economic situation for their families, they will adapt and get the most out of the opportunities presented to them. I don’t see it as age-related or ethnicity-based or even cultural; there are just people in this world who are going to find a way to get the most out of life, however it is encountered, and the way to accomplish that is to adapt to changing environments (physical, emotional, technological, whatever). Not so much “survival of the fittest” as it is “survival of the readily-adaptable” – or can fitness itself perhaps be defined as nothing more than adaptability?

  8. Generally agree that digital natives and immigrants can be segregated by age, as the natives grew up after the technology had been invented while the immigrants had to exist without and then voluntarily make an effort to learn and embrace it. Many have successfully transitioned and adapted, and I believe many of those people are pushing the boundaries of and extracting more from the technologies than the natives, because like successful immigrants in the biological/geographical realm, they are innately the types of people that naturally apply themselves to the maximum extent, regardless of the arena in which their efforts are put forth. Trying to communicate with distant acquaintances, or to study at foreign universities, or to make a new economic situation for their families, they will adapt and get the most out of the opportunities presented to them. I don’t see it as age-related or ethnicity-based or even cultural; there are just people in this world who are going to find a way to get the most out of life, however it is encountered, and the way to accomplish that is to adapt to changing environments (physical, emotional, technological, whatever). Not so much “survival of the fittest” as it is “survival of the readily-adaptable” – or can fitness itself perhaps be defined as nothing more than adaptability?

  9. Generally agree that digital natives and immigrants can be segregated by age, as the natives grew up after the technology had been invented while the immigrants had to exist without and then voluntarily make an effort to learn and embrace it. Many have successfully transitioned and adapted, and I believe many of those people are pushing the boundaries of and extracting more from the technologies than the natives, because like successful immigrants in the biological/geographical realm, they are innately the types of people that naturally apply themselves to the maximum extent, regardless of the arena in which their efforts are put forth. Trying to communicate with distant acquaintances, or to study at foreign universities, or to make a new economic situation for their families, they will adapt and get the most out of the opportunities presented to them. I don’t see it as age-related or ethnicity-based or even cultural; there are just people in this world who are going to find a way to get the most out of life, however it is encountered, and the way to accomplish that is to adapt to changing environments (physical, emotional, technological, whatever). Not so much “survival of the fittest” as it is “survival of the readily-adaptable” – or can fitness itself perhaps be defined as nothing more than adaptability?

  10. Worth: Thanks. I think fitness for survival, in evolutionary terms, was determined, in part, by adaptability. Other factors, not always in the control of the individual/ species, may have been at play as well. I was merely trying to extend the migration analogy used by the Professor as most migrants know that all migrants are not created equal 🙂 Thanks again.

  11. Worth: Thanks. I think fitness for survival, in evolutionary terms, was determined, in part, by adaptability. Other factors, not always in the control of the individual/ species, may have been at play as well. I was merely trying to extend the migration analogy used by the Professor as most migrants know that all migrants are not created equal 🙂 Thanks again.

  12. Worth: Thanks. I think fitness for survival, in evolutionary terms, was determined, in part, by adaptability. Other factors, not always in the control of the individual/ species, may have been at play as well. I was merely trying to extend the migration analogy used by the Professor as most migrants know that all migrants are not created equal 🙂 Thanks again.

  13. Interesting. There are natives, immigrants and adaptors at micro levels as well. I notice this particularly among people from companies trying to adapt to the social media space after having operated in classical online business models…they’ve spent the last four years building classical models, while the social media innovations are coming from people who spent that time interacting is similar environments (like forums). So while I’m native to social media, I’m still unfamiliar with MMOGs and virtual worlds, while others have been there since the early days (not for want of trying out, but because of lack of bandwidth). So for someone whose job it is to be ahead of the curve (or at least with it), my fear is that I’ll end up being a virtual immigrant (more likely – an adaptor) instead of a native.

  14. Interesting. There are natives, immigrants and adaptors at micro levels as well. I notice this particularly among people from companies trying to adapt to the social media space after having operated in classical online business models…they’ve spent the last four years building classical models, while the social media innovations are coming from people who spent that time interacting is similar environments (like forums). So while I’m native to social media, I’m still unfamiliar with MMOGs and virtual worlds, while others have been there since the early days (not for want of trying out, but because of lack of bandwidth). So for someone whose job it is to be ahead of the curve (or at least with it), my fear is that I’ll end up being a virtual immigrant (more likely – an adaptor) instead of a native.

  15. Interesting. There are natives, immigrants and adaptors at micro levels as well. I notice this particularly among people from companies trying to adapt to the social media space after having operated in classical online business models…they’ve spent the last four years building classical models, while the social media innovations are coming from people who spent that time interacting is similar environments (like forums). So while I’m native to social media, I’m still unfamiliar with MMOGs and virtual worlds, while others have been there since the early days (not for want of trying out, but because of lack of bandwidth). So for someone whose job it is to be ahead of the curve (or at least with it), my fear is that I’ll end up being a virtual immigrant (more likely – an adaptor) instead of a native.

  16. Thanks Nikhil. Interesting point.

    So long as you are not a digital left-behind (see Tom Wolfe’s recent carping about blogs) any status may be ok. Your age may prevent you from the label ‘native’ anyway in Palfrey’s classification 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

  17. Thanks Nikhil. Interesting point.

    So long as you are not a digital left-behind (see Tom Wolfe’s recent carping about blogs) any status may be ok. Your age may prevent you from the label ‘native’ anyway in Palfrey’s classification 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

  18. Thanks Nikhil. Interesting point.

    So long as you are not a digital left-behind (see Tom Wolfe’s recent carping about blogs) any status may be ok. Your age may prevent you from the label ‘native’ anyway in Palfrey’s classification 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

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