You see them everywhere. The teenage girl with the iPod, sitting across from you on the subway, frenetically typing messages into her cell phone. The whiz kid summer intern in your office who knows what to do when your e-mail client crashes. The eight-year-old who can beat you at any video game on the market—and types faster than you do, too. Even your niece’s newborn baby in London, whom you’ve never met, but with whom you have bonded nonetheless, owing to the new batch of baby photos that arrive each week.
All of them are “Digital Natives.” They were all born after 1980, when social digital technologies, such as Usenet and bulletin board systems, came online. They all have access to networked digital technologies. And they all have the skills to use those technologies. (Except for the baby—but she’ll learn soon enough.)
Chances are, you’ve been impressed with some of the skills these Digital Natives possess. Maybe your young assistant has shown you a hilarious political satire online that you never would have found on your own, or made presentation materials for you that make your own PowerPoint slides seem medieval by comparison. Maybe your son has Photoshopped a cloud out of a family vacation photo and turned it into the perfect Christmas card. Maybe that eight-year-old made a funny video on her own that tens of thousands of people watched on YouTube.
But there’s also a good chance that a Digital Native has annoyed you. That same assistant, perhaps, writes inappropriately casual e-mails to your clients—and somehow still doesn’t know how to put together an actual printed letter. Or maybe your daughter never comes down for dinner on time because she’s always busy online, chatting with her friends. And when she does come down to dinner, she won’t stop texting those same friends under the table.
Maybe you’re even a bit frightened by these Digital Natives. Your son has told you, perhaps, that a boy in his ninth-grade class is putting up scary, violent messages on his Web page. Or you heard about that ring of college kids who hacked into a company website and stole 487 credit-card numbers before getting caught by police.
There is one thing you know for sure: These kids are different. They study, work, write, and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways that you did growing up. They read blogs rather than newspapers. They often meet each other online before they meet in person. They probably don’t even know what a library card looks like, much less have one; and if they do, they’ve probably never used it. They get their music online—often for free, illegally—rather than buying it in record stores. They’re more likely to send an instant message (IM) than to pick up the telephone to arrange a date later in the afternoon. They adopt and pal around with virtual Neopets online instead of pound puppies. And they’re connected to one another by a common culture. Major aspects of their lives—social interactions, friendships, civic activities—are mediated by digital technologies. And they’ve never known any other way of life.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the world began to change—and fast. The first online bulletin board system (or “BBS,” for short) let people with clunky computer equipment and access to telephone lines swap documents, read news online, and send one another messages. Usenet groups, organized around topics of interest to communities of users, became popular in the early 1980s. E-mail began to enter popular usage later in the 1980s. The World Wide Web made its debut in 1991, with easy-to-use browsers widely accessible a few years later. Search engines, portals, and e-commerce sites hit the scene in the late 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, the first social networks and blogs cropped up online. In 2001, Polaroid declared bankruptcy, just as sales of digital cameras started to take off. In 2006, Tower Records liquidated its stores; by 2008, iTunes had become the largest music retailer in the United States. Today, most young people in many societies around the world carry mobile devices—cell phones, Sidekicks, iPhones—at all times, and these devices don’t just make phone calls; they also send text messages, surf the Internet, and download music.
This is the most rapid period of technological transformation ever, at least when it comes to information. The Chinese invented the printing press several centuries before Johannes Gutenberg developed the European printing press in the mid-1400s and churned out his first Bibles. Few people could afford the printed books made possible by presses for another several centuries. By contrast, the invention and adoption of digital technologies by more than a billion people worldwide has occurred over the span of a few decades. Despite the saturation of digital technologies in many cultures, no generation has yet lived from cradle to grave in the digital era.
No major aspect of modern life is untouched by the way many of us now use information technologies. Business, for instance, can be done more quickly and over greater distances, often with much less capital required to get up and running. Politicians e-mail their constituents, offer video introductions to their campaigns on their websites, and provide volunteers with sophisticated digital tools to organize events on their own. Even religion is being transformed: Priests and pastors, imams, rabbis, gurus, and even Buddhist monks have begun to reach their faithful through their weblogs.
Most notable, however, is the way the digital era has transformed how people live their lives and relate to one another and to the world around them. Some older people were there at the start, and these “Digital Settlers”—though not native to the digital environment, because they grew up in an analog-only world—have helped to shape its contours. These older people are online, too, and often quite sophisticated in their use of these technologies, but they also continue to rely heavily on traditional, analog forms of interaction. Others less familiar with this environment, “Digital Immigrants,” learned how to e-mail and use social networks late in life. You know them by the lame jokes and warnings about urban myths that they still forward to large cc: lists. Those who were born digital don’t remember a world in which letters were printed and sent, much less handwritten, or where people met up at formal dances rather than on Facebook. The changing nature of human relationships is second nature to some, and learned behavior to others.
This narrative is about those who wear the earbuds of an iPod on the subway to their first job, not those of us who still remember how to operate a Sony Walkman or remember buying LPs or eight-track tapes. Much is changing beyond just how much young people pay (or don’t pay) for their music. The young people becoming university students and new entrants in the workforce, while living much of their lives online, are different from us along many dimensions. Unlike those of us just a shade older, this new generation didn’t have to relearn anything to live lives of digital immersion. They learned in digital the first time around; they only know a world that is digital.