Emily Feld is a native of a new planet. While the 20-year-old university student may appear to live in London, she actually spends much of her time in another galaxy – in the digital universe of websites, e-mails, smart phones and social networking sites. The behavior of Emily and her generation, say experts, is being shaped by digital technology as never before. It may even be the next step in evolution, transforming our brains and the way we think.
‘First thing every morning I check my mobile for messages, have a coffee and then go on Twitter,’ says Emily. ‘I look at Facebook, my favourite social networking site, update my status, add any photos and interesting articles or music clips I’ve found. And I’ve got about 300 friends so there are always messages to read and reply to. Then I’ll browse the Internet, and if a news article on Google catches my eye, I’ll read it.’
‘The other day, I went to meet a friend in town and realized I’d left my mobile at home. I felt so lost without it that I panicked and went back to collect it. I need to have it on me at all times. Technology is an essential part of my everyday life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.’
That’s what makes Emily a ‘digital native’, someone who has never known a world without instant communication. Her mother Christine, on the other hand, is a ‘digital immigrant’, still coming to terms with a culture ruled by the ring of a mobile and the zip of text messages. Though 55-year-old Christine happily shops online and e-mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. ‘Children today are permanently multitasking – downloading tracks, uploading photos, texting. It’s non-stop,’ she says. ‘They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring.’
Are digital natives like Emily charting a new course for human intelligence? Many parents fear that children who spend hours glued to computer screens will end up as zombies with the attention span of an insect. Cyberspace is full of junk, they worry, and computer games are packed with mindless violence. But it need not be like that, say some experts, and increasingly it isn’t, as users exert more control and discrimination.
The sheer mass of information in the modern world is forcing digital natives to make choices that those who grew up with only books and television did not have to make. ‘Young people sift more and filter more,’ says Helen Petrie, a professor of human-computer interaction. ‘We have more information to deal with, and we pay less attention to particular bits of information, so it may appear that attention spans are shorter.’
The question, then, is how do digital natives learn to discriminate, and what determines the things that interest them? Parents who hope that skills, values and limits are instilled at school may be fighting a losing battle. According to some educationalists, the reason why many children today do not pay attention in school is that they find teaching methods dull compared with their digital experiences. Instead, parameters are increasingly set by ‘wiki-thinking’, peer groups exchanging ideas through digital networks. Just as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been built from the collective knowledge of thousands of contributors, so digital natives draw on the experience and advice of online communities to shape their interests.
Where is this all leading? Only one thing seems clear: changes propelled by the digital world are just beginning. Indeed, apart from age, one of the differences between the natives and the immigrants is the intuitive acceptance of rapid digital change. Parents may use the Internet as much as their children, but what they are not used to doing is upgrading. The younger generation are much more used to replacing old technology. Faster broadband speeds, smaller hardware – innovation is happening at such a pace that what was science fiction a few years ago will soon be fact.
Anecdotally, it seems, a lot of natives in this digital culture are adept at multitasking, doing several things simultaneously. But nobody knows exactly what the effect will be. In a sense, we are running a grand-scale experiment. We’re bringing up a whole generation in this totally new environment – without any firm evidence of how they will be affected.
(719 Words) Adapted from The Times Online